The Internet is both a blessing and a curse for Uganda’s LGBTI activists


A picture taken on Feb. 25, 2014 shows a newspaper stand with different types of Uganda's local dailies. (Isaac Kasamanisaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty Images)

"Friday morning was such a very bad morning for me last week," says Ugandan LGBTI activist Richard Lusimbo. Lusimbo graduated from Christian University at Mukono in Uganda with a Bachelors of Science degree in Information Technology in 2011 and now works as a research and documentation manager for Sexual Minorities Uganda, or SMUG. And on that Friday, he says, Ugandan tabloid Red Pepper ran his photo on the front page identifying him as gay.

"I couldn't go out of the house to even get a copy of the newspaper to see it for myself," Lusimbo recalled during an interview at the Internet freedom conference RightsCon in San Francisco, where he was a speaker. "My phone wouldn't stop ringing with various people calling, passing on very hateful messages." His harassers found him online, too -- flooding his Facebook page with hate messages.

"I had to turn it off for a little bit because I couldn't take it anymore."

Lusimbo's situation shows how the Internet can be a mixed blessing for marginalized communities -- helping them organize and reach larger audiences, but also allowing their attackers to identify them.

It was actually the second time the Red Pepper had outed him, Lusimbo says. The first time was in February 2013, when it published a picture of SMUG staff. Such media outings are relatively common in Uganda, where some 96 percent of the population disapproves of homosexuality, according to Pew Research. In 2010, a different (now defunct) tabloid published a list of a hundred supposedly gay Ugandans, calling for their execution. At least one prominent activist, David Kato, was killed after it came out.

In addition to widespread homophobic sentiment, being gay in Uganda also comes with criminal penalties. Ugandan President Yoweri ­Museveni recently signed a harsh anti-gay law that imposes a 14-year prison sentence for first-time offenders found guilty of "aggravated homosexuality." Repeat offenders face life sentences. It was after that proposal became law that Red Pepper started its public campaign against the LGBTI community up again.

But print publications aren't the only ones who target gay Ugandans for outing. Lusimbo says that Facebook pages expressing the same views "opened up every other second" last year. "These pages had photos of somebody and also showed the address of where they were staying" compromising their safety, he said.

Of course, the Internet has opened up many opportunities as well. "It's been an open window for us to get to the world and also reach out to other Ugandans," Lusimbo says. And in some ways, it also represents a ray of hope. "It's showed us actually that we are not alone -- that some people have already faced these type of challenges, others have won the battle and others are yet to do so."

"The Internet has also given us the opportunity enlighten others about the plight we face on a daily basis," he says. That means both sharing their story internationally and trying to change hearts and minds in Uganda. Because of popular opinion, Lusimbo says it can be hard for local media to release positive stories about the LGBTI community, but if people learn about what's going on through local bloggers or activists, he hopes they will identify more closely with the LGBTI people in their own communities. "Sometimes people are actually unaware of what's happening," he says.

"We've been able to actually mobilize and socialize using technology more than any other tool."

Still, with all of the persecution of the LGBTI community happening online in Uganda, he thinks of it as a mixed blessing. "It's been a very great challenge," Lusimbo says. "I would say it's 50-50."

Update: The original version of this story said that Lusimbo was first outed by Red Pepper in January 2013 based on his comments the interview. However, after the article was published he recalled the incident actually occurred in February 2013.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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