(NEW YORK) – Ugandan legislators on Tuesday, in a near unanimous vote, passed an anti-LGBTQI+ bill that criminalizes the production and dissemination of expression relating to LGBTQI+ issues under the guise of “promoting homosexuality.” Under this law, artists, writers and other creatives in Uganda, along with organizations who support the LGBTQI+ community, will face severe sentences of up to 5 years in prison for expressing support, solidarity or producing artistic content that deals with homosexuality and gender issues – a serious threat to artistic freedom and freedom of expression. PEN America and Amani: Africa Creative Defence Network call on President Yoweri Museveni to veto the bill in line with Uganda’s constitutional and international commitment to respect human rights and freedoms.

“We have seen a troubling rise in cases of Ugandan artists and cultural professionals who have been arrested merely on the grounds of telling the stories of LGBTQI+ communities in recent years. Today, we are deeply concerned by the implications of this newly passed legislation on artistic freedom and freedom of expression in the country,” said Julie Trebault, director of Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “PEN America and its partners in the Amani Africa Creative Defense Network are strongly urging President Museveni to block this bill from enforcement, protecting the lives of LGBTQI+ activists, writers, artists and those who support them.”

The 2023 bill was introduced to Parliament by Asuman Basalirwa, a member of the house, as a revised, and more severe, version of the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act, which was struck down. In its new shape, the Ugandan Parliament has reinforced criminal offenses against same-sex acts, but also more extensively, prohibited any expression or show of solidarity with LGBTQI+ rights with up to five years in prison for ‘promoting and abetting’ LGBTQI+ issues; a major blow for freedom of expression in a country that has a track record in criminalizing and targeting LGBTQI+ artists and creatives.

Over the past year, Ugandan authorities have banned LGBTQI+ groups under the pretext of not registering officially with the National Bureau for Nongovernmental Organizations. In January 2023, a leaked report by the Bureau showed that there are over 22 organizations working in Uganda on gender rights who are being investigated. “Individuals linked to organizations involved in promoting LGBTQI+ activities should be profiled and mechanisms put in place to prevent them from forming other organizations for a similar purpose,” the report said. The report shows the authorities’ intention to create an atmosphere of fear, censorship and surveillance to restrict freedom of expression.

“We, the Amani: Africa Creative Defence network, a continental grouping of organizations that protect artistic freedoms, are appalled at the passing of this bill by the Ugandan Parliament, which amounts to a reversal of Uganda’s human rights to the dark days of colonialism. It is widely acknowledged by African cultural experts that such laws are hangovers from Africa’s colonial past and fly in the face of indigenous African traditions of tolerance, diversity and ubuntu where one’s humanity is reaffirmed by *all* others’ humanity. Such transient anti-human rights and freedom of expression measures deeply damage society as a whole. We call on the President of Uganda to stand by the legitimate African traditions of ubuntu and hospitality so often celebrated, especially in recent years by the Ugandan welcome extended towards refugees from conflicts in South Sudan and Burundi, and to *not* sign this odious Act into law,” Said Michael Schmidt, director of the Hammerl Arts Transfer (HART) and a steering committee member of Amani: Africa Creative Defence Network.

According to Human Rights Watch, ​​within five months of the passing of the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act LGBTQI+ people faced a notable increase in arbitrary arrests, police abuse and extortion, loss of employment, evictions and homelessness, and scores fled the country. The government, already criticized for its tight security grip on freedom of expression, has been increasingly targeting opposition writers, artists and activists whether in-person or online for those who are in exile. Targeted artists have included Stella Nyanzi, Oscar Ssenyonga, Bwayo Moses, Leilah Babirye, and others. New regulations introduced by the Uganda Communications Commission limiting online expression, live performances and artistic freedom such as the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act 2022 and the Stage Play and Public Entertainment Rules reaffirm the country’s concerning trajectory of human rights violations and abuse.

About the Artists at Risk Connection

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. ARC helped launch the Amani: Creative Defence Network in April 2020. The network brings together the resources of fourteen organizations to provide assistance to creatives at risk in Africa and coordinate adequate support when artists and cultural professionals on the continent face danger because of their work. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.