Playwright David Cecil was nominated for an Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Arts Award 2014 after Ugandan authorities deported him from the country for producing a “pro-gay” play in 2013. Determined to continue his work in the Africa, Cecil is now focusing his attention on film production and education in East Africa. With one film school already set up in Uganda, he spoke to Index about his hopes to expand the project to Rwanda and Tanzania, why he believes film in Africa is going to take off in a big way over the coming years and how the situation for LGBT people in Uganda has deteriorated over recent months.
British theatre producer David Cecil brought worldwide attention to Uganda’s homophobic criminal code after he was arrested and charged for producing a “pro-gay” play in the country.
The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, a version of which was first introduced in 2009, was passed just before Christmas and signed by President Museveni at the end of February, meaning certain homosexual acts are now punishable with life in prison in Uganda.
The River and The Mountain tells the story of a successful young businessman who is killed by his employees after coming out as gay. Cecil was arrested in September 2012, when his theatre company refused to halt its production pending a content review by the Ugandan Media Council, and staged two performances in Kampala. The Council later deemed the play to be promoting homosexuality. Cecil spent four nights in a maximum-security prison and faced a two-year prison sentence or deportation if convicted.
The case attracted media attention both in Uganda and abroad, and Index on Censorship and David Lan, the artistic director of the Young Vic, launched a petition calling for the charges against Cecil to be dropped. It was signed by more than 2,500 people, including director Mike Leigh, Stephen Fry, Sandi Toksvig and actor Simon Callow, bringing attention to the wider issue of gay rights and freedom of expression in Uganda.
The charges were finally dropped on 2 January 2013, as the prosecution had failed to disclose any evidence. However, Cecil was re-arrested in February, spent five nights in prison, and was finally deported on the grounds that he was an “undesirable person”.
Cecil was deported from Uganda as a result of his play. He has been nominated for the Index Freedom of Expression Arts Award and spoke with Alice Kirkland about what this means to him.
Index: How does it feel to be nominated for the Index on Censorship arts award and why do you think you have been nominated?
David: The honour is bittersweet, as I am unable to continue living in Uganda because of what I did; the last year has been fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. Since meeting your representatives in early 2013, I stumbled across a load of back issues of your magazine from the 1980s. Reading through articles by Umberto Eco and Ronald Dworkin made me feel part of something bigger, a story unfolding over time.
I believe I was nominated because we were perceived as standing up for gay rights in a country where it’s hard to talk about homosexuality publicly. To me, at the time, we were just putting on a play and had little idea of how much impact it would have.
Index: You spent time in prison in Uganda for your part in the production of the “pro-gay” play The River and The Mountain. What impact has this had on your work and life since the incident? Would you or have you produced a play since on the same topic in a country that implements homophobic laws?
David: Since February 2013, I’ve been living in the UK as a deportee from Uganda, where I had spent 6 years building a career and a life with my new family (girlfriend and 2 kids, all Ugandan). With the recent (February 2014) signing of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law, plus other sinister developments, I now have to accept that Uganda is no longer safe for me and my family. So that chapter in my life is now closed and my family are now finally joining me here in London. This is a huge blow.
One colossal irony in all of this is that our play was not actually “pro-gay”. It simply portrayed a gay character sympathetically and satirised the politicisation of sexuality in Uganda. The people who targeted us have done all the work of promoting awareness of homosexual issues in their country.
Gay issues and rights are no obsession of mine. So, if I ever do tackle this subject again, it will be coincidental; I am primarily interested in the quality of a script or the enthusiasm of a moment.
Index: By having your production shut down, spending time in jail and facing a criminal trial you obviously had your right to free speech quashed. How did this make you feel?
David: Excited, then bemused, then frustrated, then furious, now a bit depressed – the latter mainly about Uganda, my erstwhile adopted country.
Ugandan prison was very relaxing and even pleasant. Initially, I was in the section for remand prisoners, short sentences and white-collar crime. The people were friendly, relaxed and understanding. Later, I was locked up for a week in a crowded, rough police station. That had its interesting moments, such as ghost-story-telling by candle-light, and a brilliant cast of characters. I rose to become “resident police” (prison boss) by slapping a Fagin-type with a flipflop.
My feelings are less important. I am not the victim in this story. The ones suffering are my family, and the Ugandan people.
Index: Can you explain about the run up to the production of the play in Uganda? Were you aware before the opening night that running the show could land you in jail?
David: It is important to note that the original genesis of the play comes from a meeting with a local theatre group, Rafiki. They, a group of young, heterosexual Ugandan actors and actresses, wanted to produce a play on the theme of “homosexuality”. I agreed to help, as long as it would be a comedy. Coincidentally, a friend of a friend was visiting from the UK at the time; this was Beau Hopkins, a poet and playwright, who agreed to work on the script according to a story developed in a collaborative workshop. Angella Emurwon, an award-winning Ugandan playwright, agreed to direct. It is important to note also that all the Ugandans involved are religious; one of them describes himself as a “devout Christian”.
Fast forward 4 months. I was told a week before the press premiere night that we needed to get special clearance from the Ugandan Media Council (UMC). I had already tried to secure this three months before and was told it was not necessary. (The junior UMC worker who told me this was correct; normally, one would not have to get any clearance for a theatre play in Uganda.) In the end, the secretary of the UMC decided to politicise what we were doing and, at the very last minute, insisted that I sign a letter asking us to desist until they had reviewed the script with their 11-strong committee. Pius, the secretary knew that this meant the play would not be performed, due to subsequent commitments of the director and the key actors, as I had already informed him of all that. The letter was cc-ed to the prime minister’s office, the chief of police, the head of media crimes CID and the minister of ethics & integrity. Because the letter made no mention of legal consequences, articles or anything binding, I signed.
I immediately visited a friend of mine, a human rights lawyer, Godwin Buwa, whose prognosis proved remarkably accurate in all but one regard. The letter was indeed a threat – it could not stand up in a court of law – however, one of the agencies cc-ed may try and act on it. I could be charged with something, possibly, but since the letter was so badly phrased, the worst I would suffer would be a few nights on remand. Since the case would have no water, I would be guilty of no crime and would not be deported.
We had a meeting with the cast. My name was on the paper, they were not in danger. We had worked too hard to be bullied into silence by a badly-phrased letter. We agreed to go ahead and face the consequences.
Perhaps I carried over an element of bravado from my experiences organising underground raves and music festivals in Europe, sometimes in the teeth of official sanction. At worst we had our sound system seized and threatened on numerous occasions, but always continued doing what we loved doing.
Index: Your trial brought global media attention to the situation in Uganda regarding the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, but did this attention do anything to change the laws in the country?
David: To make a faintly disgusting analogy, I think that much of the attention (from our case and others) has been like squeezing a pimple. It has brought the pus to the top.
It was never my attention to directly talk about minority rights or the laws in Uganda — I would not presume to do so. It is none of my business, in every sense. What we were trying to do was to make fun of the nonsense surrounding attitudes to gays – the very bigotry and politicisation that took us down – without getting involved in a “right or wrong” argument. Our play was funny; it was entertainment. I hope that we changed the attitudes of some audience members.
I believe communities are the source of meaning. The law either follows or clashes with that meaning. Sometimes a law may be passed to protect a minority; maybe…
The problem with international activism is that it plays right into the hands of people who argue that homosexuality is a “foreign menace”. At least, people who care about these issues should spend a significant amount of time in the countries to understand why ordinary, sound people may be homophobic. Then they can judge and engage with them.
Activism is a label with revolutionary connotations. I am certainly no activist. At most, we wanted to get people talking.
Index: What role does freedom of expression have to play in discussions about homophobia, especially in countries where it is a crime to be gay?
David: Without freedom of expression, government propaganda and lazy “common sense” prevails, especially regarding taboos or controversies. In a country where religious, ethnic and gender identities are so important and politicised, it is essential that we can discuss politics in terms of our identity, without fear of arrest.
Index: How important are awards like the Index on Censorship one in advocating free speech as a human right?
David: In Uganda, there’s a fantastic organisation called “Freethought Kampala”. They’d benefit from exposure and affiliation. I’d love to see the Index organising an event with their founder James Onen and his friends.
Ugandan artists have for a long time been able to read the public mood in the country and have taken note of it in their plays and songs.
nder the military dictatorship of Idi Amin, a few brave artists expressed themselves through music and drama. Plays that were critical of the Amin regime were written and performed. Several of the authors were killed or forced into exile.
During the early years of President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) government, musicians, choreographers and playwrights promoted the new government through their works for bringing back stability after the overthrow of Obote and Lutwa regimes. The general public was full of praises for the new regime and artists tapped into that feeling.
However, as the early optimism waned, many artists became more critical. These artists have been censored, paid off or even deported, delivering big blows to artistic freedom of expression in Uganda in the process.
Nnabbi Omukazi composed a song in which she claimed to have had a dream where a dead politician told her that she did not die from cocaine, but that she had been poisoned.
It was believed to be about Cerinah Nebanda, a young, vocal and critical member of parliament who died early this year. The government quickly told the public it was from a cocaine overdose, but her family and some members of parliament were not convinced by this explanation. They decided to hire a pathologist to take body samples of the deceased to South Africa to ascertain the cause of death. The pathologist was intercepted by security en-route to the airport and detained, which compounded the family’s suspicion that the MP had been poisoned because of her critical stance on several government positions. For composing that song, Police interrogated Nnabbi, and her song was banned from the airwaves.
Another artist, Matthias Walukagga, composed the song Tuli bakoowu (We are tired) in which he indirectly hints at the president’s overstay in power. In one verse, the artist asks; “When will the old man also declare that he is tired.” This song was banned on airwaves, but people still buy the CD’s and play it.
One of the biggest Ugandan artists, Bobi Wine aka “Ghetto President” wrote a song criticizing the way small traders in Kampala were being mistreated by the city authorities. In his song Tugambire ku Jennifer (Tell Jennifer to stop harassing us) Bobi attacks Jennifer Musisi, the Executive Director of Kampala Capital City Authority, for not caring about the plight of the poor and only protecting the interests of the rich. Responding to Bobi’s song, Musisi first dismissed it as one without consequence. However, when she realised the pressure the song was creating from the poor city dwellers, she invited Bobi to ceasefire talks. He also walked away with a fat contract to promote city activities starting with the Kampala Carnival 2013, taking place on 6 October 2013.
Patronage does not stop with politicians, it extends to almost all spheres of Ugandan society. Several other performing artists have been given fat contracts from State House (the President’s residence) to work for the presidency in different areas. In fact today, one will see a bus full of artists going to State House on invitation from the President to discuss “issues of national importance.”
Richard Kaweesa and Isaac Rucibigango, both smart and intelligent performing artists composed the song “You want another Rap”, which President Museveni used to woo young voters in the 2011 elections. This song went viral on social media and it worked in the president’s favor. The two artists were handsomely paid by the presidency. Again in 2012 when Uganda was marking 50 years of independence, Kaweesa was given another deal from State House to compose the Jubilee song. This earned him a reported 600 million shillings (US Dollars 235,300).
The same trend can be seen with comedians, as several have specialised in imitating big politicians. Segujja Museveni has perfected the art of mimicking President Museveni and has on several occasions been invited to perform for him. At his first performance before the president, he laughed so hard he had to wipe away tears. It was the first time the nation saw the president have such a hearty laugh. Since then, Segujja’s career has been on a meteoric rise.
As for dramatic artists; they are still reluctant to freely express themselves because of the potential consequences. However, they keep on making references to the political, economical and social spheres of Uganda in their plays. One artist that did this was British-born theatre producer David Cecil. He was deported from Uganda in February 2013 after being accused of staging a play promoting homosexuality. This was at a time when the government of Uganda was up in arms against anyone who seemed not to have a problem with homosexuality.
Most artists have decided to play it safe by keeping away from controversial issues, mainly political, that affect society. Sarah Zawedde, a musician says that the biggest threats to artistic freedom in Uganda are from the cultural, religious and political spheres.
David Cecil, the British theatre producer who faced a legal battle with Ugandan authorities for staging a play about homosexuality has been deported from Uganda. Cecil’s legal team had been hoping to appeal the Ugandan court’s deportation ruling, but he was flown from the country unexpectedly on Monday, leaving behind his partner and two children. Cecil was arrested in September last year for his play The River and the Mountain, which explored the difficulties of being gay in Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal. He faced two years in prison before charges were dropped, due to a lack of evidence but was rearrested last week. Cecil’s legal team are planning to contest the decision.
Women and children in Saudi Arabia have been arrested for protesting the conviction of their relatives, who are political prisoners. At least 26 women and five children at demonstrations in the cities of Riyadh and Buraida were taken into custody on 9 February. They had been protesting against the imprisonment of relatives they say have been held for years without access to lawyers or a trial. According to reports three of the arrested women are the wife, daughter and granddaughter of political activist Suleiman al-Rashudi, who was imprisoned in December for saying that protests were permitted in Islam during a lecture. He had previously spent five years in detention before being charged with financing terrorism, attempting to seize power and incitement against the king.
Haiti’s government has denied claims that entertainers were banned from performing at its annual three-day carnival for being critical of the state. In a press release, the office of Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe strongly refuted the claims, after at least three Haitian bands said on 9 February they were banned from performing at the city of Cap-Haitien carnival for having songs critical of the government. President Michel Martelly openly mocked authorities during his music career as ”Sweet Micky”, by dressing in drag and mooning audiences as he lambasted the government during carnival performances. Amongst the rejected bands was Brothers Posse, who were included in the original line up before being removed by the carnival committee. Their song Aloral criticises the government for failing to implement improved policies on education, environment, law, employment and energy. Martelly said in a radio interview that the music didn’t promote a positive image of Haiti, saying ”We’re organising a party, not a protest.”
A judge has condemned Salford University’s attempts to sue a former lecturer for libel after he compared managers to Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Senior officials were accused of abusing the high courts by a judge after they lost the defamation lawsuit filed in March 2010 against Dr Gary Duke, it was reported today (12 February). They attempted to sue their former colleague over posts he had written on a university blog for anonymous users, acting as a forum for criticism of the university’s services. Duke compared Salford University managers to a “bureaucratic dictatorship” in a blog post, saying that Hezbollah was “more accountable and transparent” than the university’s administration. Mr Justice Eady dismissed the case last week, saying it was up to individuals to seek libel action. The case is thought to have cost at least £100,000 and enlisted US court action to force internet company WordPress to hand over details of its users. Duke was fired in 2009 after spoof newsletters criticising university policy were handed around campus, and later lost a wrongful dismissal suit against the university. Salford University said they were considering an appeal against the verdict.
A Russian figure skating star is planning to sue a television commentator after he expressed doubts that the skater underwent spinal surgery as he claimed. Evgeny Plushenko said Eurosport commentator Andrei Zhurankov libelled him by voicing his doubts that he had undergone surgery during a weekend broadcast of the Four Continents figure skating world championships. Zhurankov referenced reports by some Israeli media which said there were no records of his surgery at local hospitals. The 2006 Olympic champion had been forced to withdraw from January’s European Championships, and his coach Alexei Mishin later said he had disk-replacement surgery in Israel. Plushenko’s attorney, Tatyana Akimtseva filed a lawsuit on 11 February.