This statement was originally published on article19.org on 23 May 2017.
ARTICLE 19 is concerned by the recent censorship of the film The Dinner Club, following the denial of a classification by the Media Council of Uganda. The film had been submitted as the Dutch entrance for this year's European Film Festival in Uganda, however its screening was cancelled following the Council's decision. The Media Council has subsequently prohibited the exhibition of the film anywhere in Uganda.
Among the comments made by the Council regarding the ban are that the film "depicts and glorifies homosexuality", and that the film contains profanity, listing as an example a scene where one gay man calls another a "hot chick". The decision to censor the film on this basis is in violation of international standards on freedom of expression, which require the right to be guaranteed for all without discrimination, and limit the grounds on which expression can be restricted based on "morals".
"Censorship of this kind by the Media Council is not only discriminatory, but unconstitutional. The Ugandan Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 29, and this decision denies that right. This is not only a significant blow to artistic expression in Uganda, but a worrying example of discrimination against LGBT expression, which is likely to cause further self-censorship among LGBT people in the country," said Henry Maina, Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa.
Uganda has previously banned films depicting sexual scenes, however this most recent ban is particularly concerning given the existing repression of LGBT expression in the country. Uganda criminalises consensual relations between people of the same sex, and LGBT people are subject to violence and threats.
While CSOs and other civic actors fight to push back against the shrinking civic space in the region, censorship continues across Eastern Africa, particularly through restrictive and punitive film regulation policies aimed at curtailing production of works that could elicit critical discussion on the status of governance, human rights and equality in the region.
In November 2016, attempts by the Kenya Films and Classification Board (KFCB) to introduce a repressive film policy were thwarted following sustained opposition by the creative and media industry. In 2014, KFCB had banned the exhibition and distribution of Stories of Our Lives, a film about the queer community in Kenya, supposedly for production without a licence.
Freedom of expression includes the freedom to make works that can shock or offend, and while there is no single definition of what constitutes an acceptable restriction based on morality, international standards are clear that limitations based on "public morals" must not be applied in a discriminatory fashion. Equally, the decision to censor the expression must meet the three part test of legality, legitimacy, and necessity.
"It is important to note that in an increasingly repressive and conservative environment for freedom of expression, censorship of creative and artistic works is being increasingly used to stifle freedom of expression. Censoring expression which depicts or is related to LGBT people only serves to further stigmatise them and promote discrimination. It also curtails their representation and participation in public discourse."
"The transparency of the film licensing process in the region must be addressed to prevent its use for these restrictions, and the Ugandan government must ensure it abides by its international obligation to protect the right to free expression for all, without discrimination," added Maina.
ARTICLE 19 asks the Media Council of Uganda to:
Revoke the censorship of the film and issue an appropriate classification for the film in line with its role as regulator.
Ensure greater transparency in its decision-making process by involving film makers, distributors and public, and make public all its detailed decisions banning any film.
We also call on the Ugandan government to review of the Press and Journalist Act 1995 Section 105 to ensure that it conforms to Uganda's international human rights obligations. The Act gives the Council too much arbitrary latitude "to exercise any function that may be authorized or required by law".