KAMPALA (Reuters) - A young man, baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, looks first over his left shoulder and then over his right, back over his left and once more over the right before he is sure nobody is listening.
He then looks down at his feet and the small dance floor of Ugandan capital Kampala’s only gay bar, T-Cozy, and starts to speak slowly — and quietly.
There is good reason to be scared. This month a new Ugandan newspaper, calling itself Rolling Stone, ran a cover story with the headline: “100 pictures of Uganda’s top homos leak.”
A smaller banner headline had only two words: “Hang them.”
The paper printed photographs of 11 Ugandan men and women it said were gay in that first issue but says it now intends to serialize the story — printing profiles of 10 to 15 gay people a week until it has outed the full 100.
Of the 11 featured at least four say they have since been attacked.
Giles Muhame, editor of the fledgling paper with a circulation of just 2,000, is unrepentant and says he is protecting the moral fabric of the east African nation.
“I can assure you that we will continue to publish these photos of homosexuals,” the 22-year-old told Reuters. “There is no doubt about that.”
The publication of Rolling Stone came almost exactly one year after a so-called anti-gay bill was tabled in the Ugandan parliament proposing the death penalty for homosexuals.
The proposal caused international uproar, drawing fire from Western nations upon which the poor east African nation relies for aid and investment.
U.S. President Barack Obama denounced the proposed legislation as “odious” and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to express her strong concerns about the bill.
It was quietly shelved under the pressure, but rights groups suspect it may be passed after elections in February that Museveni is expected to win.
“It has to be debated under our law,” Ethics Minister Nsaba Buturo told Reuters. “I am confident it will be passed but with amendments, for example on the issue of death penalty. I don’t believe that is the way to go.”
Buturo said a provision for jail sentences may be included in the legislation but that counseling would also be available should gay people want to repent.
But David Bahati, the member of parliament who originally proposed the bill, says he is very confident the provision for the death penalty will remain.
Homosexuality is deeply unpopular in many African nations, where it is seen as a Western import. It is illegal in 37 countries on the continent and activists say few Africans are openly gay, fearing harassment, attacks and loss of employment.
Muhame set up Rolling Stone with two fellow graduates of journalism school. He is dressed smartly in a button-down shirt, is friendly, laughs often and easily and says he has a girlfriend whom he hopes to marry some day.
He denies claims the newspaper is funded by American fundamentalist Christian groups, often accused of stoking homophobia in Africa.
“We called the paper Rolling Stone because it is a stone that is rolling and bringing out the evil in society. If people are promoting homosexuality then the stone is going to knock on their door and smoke them out,” Muhame says, laughing.
He says it was not his intention that members of the public would attack the people featured in the newspaper, despite publishing their addresses.
“We published the areas where they live so that counselors could find them and help them,” he says. “We want a death penalty introduced for homosexuals who are trying to brainwash children but we don’t want the public to attack them.”
Frank Mugisha, director of rights group Sexual Minorities Uganda, and one of the 11 featured in the newspaper, says he finds that hard to believe.
“If he wanted to make a point with the government, he would have gone to the government,” Mugisha says. “By publishing in the media, he has gone to the Ugandan community and put sexual minorities at risk of attack.”
Mugisha, who has been in a relationship with another man for three years, says he has been pushed and shouted at in the streets since the publication.
“If he continues to publish these articles, we will report him to the law because he is inciting violence against a minority and that is criminal,” Mugisha says. “Almost everyone who was in the article has been attacked or harassed.”
In T-Cozy bar, the young man in the baseball cap says that there have been fewer customers on its gay-friendly weekend nights over the past couple of weeks.
“I think some are hiding,” he says. “They are just more scared than before.”
Editing by David Clarke