When the old fox walks the tightrope

Despite a petition from a group of activists and legal experts, Uganda’s Constitutional Court recently made the decision to uphold the Anti-Homosexuality Act, one of the most oppressive anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the world. A few parts of the Act were struck out, including the “duty to report acts of homosexuality”, and the restrictions on publishing “material promoting or encouraging homosexuality”, but the rest remains strong. In our summer 2023 magazine, just as the Act was passing, Danson Kahyana and Stella Nyanzi discussed the implications for free speech, and what the petition from activists would mean for President Yoweri Museveni’s balancing act where this law was concerned.

To a chorus of outrage at the end of May 2023, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexual Bill into law, which can apply the death penalty.

When Museveni returned the bill to parliament for “strengthening” soon after it had been passed in March, it was clear that the old fox who has ruled Uganda since 1986 with an iron hand and “pretensions to the trapping of democracy” – as political scientist Aili Mari Tripp calls it – was in a fix.

On the one hand, his populist self loves the passion that the framing of homosexuality as a Western import and a corrupter of African morality arouses, so signing the bill into law gives him a new lease of political life.

Styling himself as the champion of African values, Museveni believes norms and morals can easily translate into political support at the next presidential and parliamentary elections in 2026, given the influential groups in support of the bill (the Muslim fraternity, some Christian denominations and traditionalists). This support is priceless, considering the populace’s increasing anger at his regime, which has received unflattering labels including an “empty autocracy” (Yusuf Serunkuma) and “vampire state” (Allan Tacca).

On the other hand, the regime survives partly (if not mostly) because of the economic and political support it receives from Western governments such as those in the USA, Canada and some in the European Union.

These “partners” have, over the decades, closed one eye to his political excesses (rigging elections and brutalising members of opposition political parties, for example) and bankrolled him in different ways – the most obvious ones being budget support and providing large sums of money to enable Uganda’s participation in continental and regional missions. Signing the bill into law could spell doom for his hold on power, since these Western governments have warned of political and economic consequences, which the USA has already made good on by revoking the visa of Anita Among, Uganda’s speaker of parliament.

This is the tightrope he had to walk – but not for the first time. He did the same in 2014 when he signed the 2013 Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law. That time, what saved him from serious reprisals from the West was the Uganda Constitutional Court which, later that year, quashed the law on technical grounds. (It had been passed in parliament without the required quorum, thereby rendering it null and void). His saving grace now could be a petition from 11 activists, including lecturers, journalists and an MP, to block the implementation of the law.

Before May’s developments, I asked Dr Stella Nyanzi, Uganda’s leading and celebrated researcher on sexualities, what was new with this 2023 bill compared with the bill of 2013, and she said that as far as she was concerned there was nothing substantially new.

Both bills were enacted in the spirit of criminalising sexualities that were considered alien and wayward in order to protect so-called African values – a claim that is absurd given that it is colonial in origin.

“Before colonialism,” Nyanzi told Index, “Africa embraced different sexualities like polygyny, polygamy and polyandry, to mention but a few. The view that Africa has always had one form of sexuality is ahistorical and a figment of the imagination.”

There is something new, however.

“While the 2013 Anti-Homosexuality Bill was proposed by a Pentecostal Christian with very strong support from the US Evangelical churches, this time round the proposer of the bill is a Muslim man, with a strong backing of the Islamic faith in Uganda,” she said. “He is a Member of Parliament who belongs to an opposition political party, unlike the proposer of the 2013 bill who belonged (and still belongs) to the ruling party.”

Besides the pretensions to African morality that motivated this act, there is a more serious threat at stake – the government’s desire to have total control over the bodies of its citizens.

Nyanzi said: “For this reason, the bill should be seen in the context of other repressive laws that the Museveni regime has passed – for instance, the Public Order Management Act (2013), the Computer Misuse Act (2011), the Anti-Pornography Act (2014), the Non-Governmental Organisations Act (2016) and the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act (2022), among others.

“The Anti-Homosexuality Bill should be seen in the spirit of all the above laws – criminalising dissent, even in sexual matters.”

Even before it was signed into law, the bill sent tremors through Uganda.

Some people fled the country, as evidenced by what is happening at welcome centres in Kenya and South Africa, to mention just two countries.
“[It] will have far-reaching effects,” Nyanzi warned.

“It will be criminal, for instance, to offer certain kinds of sex education, provide certain kinds of medical services, report certain kinds of news, write certain kinds of scholarly work or works of fiction, produce certain kinds of movies, make certain kinds of speeches, and to rent your premises to – or even employ – certain kinds of people, because you could be accused of promoting homosexuality, and therefore contravening Section 14 of the bill.”

This means that the law will not only stifle the lives and work of the people who identify as homosexual but also affect the lives and work of all Ugandans.

Even the very people who pushed for the legislation will not be safe. A religious leader could, for instance, be dragged to court for having someone who identifies as homosexual enter his or her church or mosque for prayers or for a service.

After the bill passed in parliament, Museveni found himself in a dilemma. If he did not sign it into law he would have risked alienating the pretentious, self-righteous, politically powerful Christian, Muslim and other morality crusaders who were pushing for the legislation.

And by passing it, he could at last be losing the support of his beloved Western partners who have stuck with him even as he brutalised Ugandans who do not toe his line.

And in the time before the bill became law, he might have been facing another challenge in the background.

“The people at the helm of Uganda’s parliament – [speaker] Anita Annet Among and her deputy, Thomas Tayeebwa – might want to assert their independence from the executive arm of government in a move aimed to show how powerful they are. So, while President Museveni is known to control what happens in parliament because his party has an overwhelming majority there, this time round he might find it hard to have his way to the letter.”

But this being the skilled manipulator that he is, I believe that we should not underestimate him: he could still have his cake and eat it.

How? He signed it into law and waited for others to petition the Constitutional Court, as has been done by the group of 11 activists, so that the judiciary pronounces itself on the constitutionality of the new law. If the court upholds it, he will say he has nothing to do because his regime is law-abiding.

However, if the court annuls it in its entirety (as it did in 2014) or some sections of it, the West will be satisfied, to a certain degree, that Uganda’s courts have a modicum of independence.

Museveni will be in his usual element. He will have survived yet another dilemma.

Calls to sanction architects of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act grow

A prominent Ugandan LGBTQ+ activist Steven Kabuye, who nearly lost his life when he was attacked by unknown men in January this year, believes politicians and other leaders fomenting hate in his country against vulnerable communities must be put under targeted sanctions. As a result, Kabuye backs calls by LGBTQI+ campaigners in the United Kingdom to bar the Speaker of the Ugandan parliament, Anita Annet Among, from entering the country to attend celebrations around the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth Day will be celebrated on Monday 11 March with a series of events and activities that will include a contingent of speakers and presiding officers from the Commonwealth countries, while the 75th anniversary of the modern Commonwealth will be celebrated on 26 April. Kabuye told Index that Among must be barred from these events as she championed the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act last year, which has triggered a rise in attacks against LGBTQ+ persons. Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act imposes mandatory life imprisonment for consenting same-sex acts, and the death penalty for “serial offenders”. Anyone who rents property to persons who commit offences under the legislation faces up to seven years in jail.

Kabuye, the co-executive director and co-founder of Coloured Voices Media Foundation, a youth-led organisation that advocates for equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community, told Index that the environment he finds himself in after the passage of that law is so dangerous that he fears for his life. In January this year, he was hospitalised for three days in Uganda and two weeks outside the country after he was attacked by two men on a motorbike. He said a colleague who took him to hospital after the attack was arrested for assisting him.

“The attack was aimed at silencing me. What the attacker said while trying to swipe a knife to cut my neck and what transpired after the attack clearly shows that,” he said adding that the attacker said “Ffa Musiyazzi Gwe“, translated as “Die you homosexual”, to Kabuye.

He said he has received a lot of death threats, especially on his X account. “Someone could come and tell you, I know your address. We are coming any day, count yourself dead. Dead or soon dead, that’s how I can describe that environment,” he said.

Kabuye’s fears are not unfounded. In 2011, a Ugandan gay rights activist, David Kato, was beaten to death at his home outside Kampala. Before his death, Kato had brought an injunction against a local newspaper, Rolling Stone, which printed his name, photograph and address alongside those of dozens of others the paper claimed were gay or lesbian and called for them to be hanged.

Kabuye believes the architects of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act must be sanctioned, hence his support for the campaign both in Uganda and the UK for Among to be barred from entering the UK.

“Banning the speaker from the UK will send a clear message to any politician out there who is willing to support laws like the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023. You will be punished,” said Kabuye.

“We want all politicians, religious leaders, and other entities who supported the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 to be sanctioned individually.”

Samantha Ainembabazi from Kuchu Times, an online platform that gives a voice to LGBTQ+ people whose are otherwise censored in the mainstream media in Uganda, emphasised in a phone interview with Index the key role that Among played in passing Uganda’s draconian law. She added that the environment the Ugandan LGBTQ+ community lives in can be summarised by a report from late 2023 compiled by the Strategic Response Team, a coalition of Ugandan LGBTQ+ rights organisations, which showed how the controversial law has not only created a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ individuals but has also been used as a pretext to infringe upon a wide range of human rights.

“By the time of this report there had been 180 cases of evictions targeting LGBTQ+ individuals and families, 176 cases of torture, abuse, and degrading treatment inflicted upon LGBTIQ+ individuals. One-hundred-and-fifty-nine cases of violations and abuse of the right to equality and freedom from discrimination have been documented,” said Ainembabazi.

“LGBTIQ+ individuals in Uganda continue to face systemic discrimination and prejudice, which hinders their access to education, healthcare, employment and other essential services and 102 cases of mental health issues among this community highlight the psychological trauma endured due to discrimination, violence and social exclusion. These numbers have almost doubled since the last report.”

UK rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has since joined the campaign to bar the Uganda speaker. Tatchell wrote a letter to Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, saying Among is one of those who championed Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which he described as one of the world’s harshest anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

“Among’s presence in the UK would send a terrible signal that Britain tolerates the extreme homophobia of those who advocate the killing of LGBT+ people. There should be no facilitation and collusion with a politician who has blood on her hands,” wrote Tatchell.

He said Hoyle should make representations to the UK home and foreign secretaries that the Ugandan Speaker of Parliament should be denied entry to the UK because she opposes the British values of respect and equality, and that her presence would not be conducive to public good, harmonious community relations and public order.

Such a move would certainly send a strong message and for people like Kabuye can’t come soon enough. For them every day brings with it new fears.

Contents – Having the last laugh: The comedians who won’t be silenced


The Winter 2023 issue of Index looks at how comedians are being targeted by oppressive regimes around the world in order to crack down on dissent. In this issue, we attempt to uncover the extent of the threat to comedy worldwide, highlighting examples of comedians being harassed, threatened or silenced by those wishing to censor them.

The writers in this issue report on example of comedians being targeted all over the globe, from Russia to Uganda to Brazil. Laughter is often the best medicine in dark times, making comedy a vital tool of dissent. When the state places restrictions on what people can joke about and suppresses those who breach their strict rules, it's no laughing matter.

Up Front

Still laughing, just, by Jemimah Steinfeld: When free speech becomes a laughing matter.

The Index, by Mark Frary: The latest in the world of free expression, from Russian elections to a memorable gardener


Silent Palestinians, by Samir El-Youssef: Voices of reason are being stamped out.

Soundtrack for a siege, by JP O'Malley: Bosnia’s story of underground music, resistance and Bono.

Libraries turned into Arsenals, by Sasha Dovzhyk: Once silent spaces in Ukraine are pivotal in times of war.

Shot by both sides, by Martin Bright: The Russian writers being cancelled.

A sinister news cycle, by Winthrop Rodgers: A journalist speaks out from behind bars in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Smoke, fire and a media storm, by John Lewinski: Can respect for a local culture and media scrutiny co-exist? The aftermath of disaster in Hawaii has put this to the test.

Message marches into lives and homes, by Anmol Irfan: How Pakistan's history of demonising women's movements is still at large today.

A snake devouring its own tail, by JS Tennant: A Cuban journalist faces civic death, then forced emigration.

A 'seasoned dissident' speaks up, by Martin Bright: Writing against Russian authority has come full circle for Gennady Katsov.

Special Report: Having the last laugh - The comedians who won't be silenced

And God created laughter (so fuck off), by Shalom Auslander: On failing to be serious, and trading rabbis for Kafka.

The jokes that are made - and banned - in China, by Jemimah Steinfeld: Journalist turned comedian Vicky Xu is under threat after exposing Beijing’s crimes but in comedy she finds a refuge.

Giving Putin the finger, by John Sweeney: Reflecting on a comedy festival that tells Putin to “fuck off”.

Meet the Iranian cartoonist who had to flee his country, by Daisy Ruddock: Kianoush Ramezani is laughing in the face of the Ayatollah.

The SLAPP stickers, by Rosie Holt and Charlie Holt: Sometimes it’s not the autocrats, or the audience, that comedians fear, it’s the lawyers.

This great stage of fools, by Danson Kahyana: A comedy troupe in Uganda pushes the line on acceptable speech.

Joke's on Lukashenka speaking rubbish Belarusian. Or is it?, by Maria Sorensen: Comedy under an authoritarian regime could be hilarious, it it was allowed.

Laughing matters, by Daisy Ruddock: Knock knock. Who's there? The comedy police.

Taliban takeover jokes, by Spozhmai Maani and Rizwan Sharif: In Afghanistan, the Taliban can never by the punchline.

Turkey's standups sit down, by Kaya Ge: Turkey loses its sense of humour over a joke deemed offensive.

An unfunny double act, by Thiện Việt: A gold-plated steak and a maternal slap lead to problems for two comedians in Vietnam.

Dragged down, by Tilewa Kazeem: Nigeria's queens refuse to be dethroned.

Turning sorrow into satire, by Zahra Hankir: A lesson from Lebanon: even terrible times need comedic release.

'Hatred has won, the artist has lost', by Salil Tripathi: Hindu nationalism and cries of blasphemy are causing jokes to land badly in India.

Did you hear the one about...? No, you won't have, by Alexandra Domenech: Putin has strangled comedy in Russia, but that doesn't stop Russian voices.

Of Conservatives, cancel culture and comics, by Simone Marques: In Brazil, a comedy gay Jesus was met with Molotov cocktails.

Standing up for Indigenous culture, by Katie Dancey-Downs: Comedian Janelle Niles deals in the uncomfortable, even when she'd rather not.


Your truth or mine, by Bobby Duffy: Debate: Is there a free speech crisis on UK campuses?

All the books that might not get written, by Andrew Lownie: Freedom of information faces a right royal problem.

An image or a thousand words?, by Ruth Anderson: When to look at an image and when to look away.


Lukashenka's horror dream, by Alhierd Bacharevič and Mark Frary: The Belarusian author’s new collection of short stories is an act of resistance. We publish one for the first time in English.

Lost in time and memory, by Xue Tiwei: In a new short story, a man finds himself haunted by the ghosts of executions.

The hunger games, by Stephen Komarnyckyj and Mykola Khvylovy: The lesson of a Ukrainian writer’s death must be remembered today.

The woman who stopped Malta's mafia taking over, by Paul Caruana Galizia: Daphne Caruana Galizia’s son reckons with his mother’s assassination.

UK’s hostile environment continues to silence already persecuted people

After the infamous “go home” vans, the Windrush scandal and a (failed) policy to push back people crossing the channel on boats, this week the UK government sharpened its latest tool in its hostile environment box: the Rwanda plan. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak threw a surprise press conference about the government’s Rwanda policy, now freshly emboldened with a new treaty following the Supreme Court’s declaration that Rwanda is not a safe country for UK asylum seekers. The prime minister said he would “finish the job” of getting his controversial deportation plan off the ground.

Questions from journalists to Sunak centred largely around what a vote on new legislation means for the state of the Conservative Party and Sunak’s position as leader. There are free speech implications here too and so I’d like to add a few questions to the list: how does the Rwanda plan impact people at risk? How will the UK keep safe persecuted people? And how will we make sure that people who have a legal right to seek asylum have a voice?

Of the latter, last summer, the BBC aired Sir Mo Farah’s documentary on his experience of being trafficked to the UK from Somaliland as a child, and how he was forced to work as a domestic servant. He was told, “If you ever want to see your family again, don’t say anything. If you say anything, they will take you away.”

His real name is Hussein Abdi Kahin. He was eventually helped in his claim for British citizenship through what was technically fraudulent means and, until the documentary aired, he had remained silent about his true identity, about what he had experienced as a child and really about everything that had weighed on his mind. He feared speaking up and so he stayed silent.

As a much-loved public figure, perhaps Farah knew he would have some modicum of protection if he revealed the truth, which it turns out he did. For others who are victims of trafficking, asking for help can be another story. The only option of escaping exploitation might be going to the authorities and seeking asylum, but this is not the most appealing, or even easy, route. Aberystwyth University’s Gillian McFayden described the Home Office’s “culture of disbelief” in 2018, and how in interviews “inconsistencies will be held against the asylum seeker and they will then be viewed as lacking in credibility.” Trauma is difficult to recount in a consistent way – and this is effectively used against people.

When I last visited Calais and spoke to people planning to cross to the UK (and where they frequently reported violence from French police), there was also a severe lack of clear information about what life in the UK would be like and how the system works. Rumours abounded, amid patchy access to data and language barriers. With a landscape ripe for misinformation and policies that are already unclear amongst the UK public, the confusion that comes from a complicated and hostile environment only leaves people making the journey to the UK more susceptible to exploitation.

Then there is Rwanda itself, hardly known for its robust human rights record. Sile Reynolds, head of asylum advocacy at Freedom from Torture, told me today: “We know from our own clients – survivors of torture who’ve fled the most unimaginable horrors and encountered further trauma on their journeys to find safety – the awful toll that this policy has taken on them. Clinicians have reported that some of our clients are so terrified of being shipped off thousands of miles away to Rwanda that they’d contemplate committing suicide if they were ever served with a removal notice. The stakes really could not be any higher.”

On Rwanda, let’s pause for a moment on its rights record. There is widespread evidence of the abuse of LGBTQ+ people, as just one example. Grassroots asylum support charity African Rainbow Family launched a petition earlier this year to stop the deportation of LGBTQ+ people to the country. On a poster for their No Pride in Deportation campaign, they wrote, “One of our service users was just granted her freedom by the Home Office. She was forced to flee her home in Rwanda due to the persecution she faced as an LGBTIQ+ person. Even the Home Office recognises that Rwanda is unsafe for LGBTIQ+ people.”

They said of LGBTQ+ people: “Deporting them back to these hostile environments can risk condemning them to continued suffering, exile, physical harm, emotional trauma, abuse, isolation, torture and death.”

On the UK government’s own foreign travel advice page for Rwanda it says: “LGBT individuals can experience discrimination and abuse, including from local authorities.” Should we be sending people to a country where they can’t freely express their identity, where doing so could even lead to death?

With the strengthening of the hostile environment comes the lack of something else: safe routes. It’s not just people already in the UK being impacted by this asylum policy, but persecuted people looking to the UK for help. Take the Afghan journalists we work with who fled to Pakistan only to find more danger awaiting them, and little opportunity to earn a living. Some told us they had considered selling a kidney to afford food, which, horrifyingly, others have indeed done. And after Pakistan forced Afghan refugees to leave at the beginning of November, the situation may have become even more dangerous. Women in Afghanistan have no voice. There is no room for dissent or criticism.

Thankfully, some of the Afghan journalists we work with have found sanctuary in France, after the UK failed to make good on promises of refuge. There are still many more Afghans at risk who should be offered safety in the UK, but instead the focus is on deterrents over safe routes and compassion.

Reynolds accused the government of the “demonisation and scapegoating of refugees” and called policies like the Rwanda scheme and Bibby Stockholm “performative cruelty.” For people seeking refuge in this environment, fear breeds silence. For persecuted people who are still looking for safe routes, there are few options left but more danger.