Zambia: Media smears, scapegoating and state-sponsored hate haunt LGBT people

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By Miles Rutendo Tanhira

LGBT people in Zambia are gripped with fear as media, police, and members of the public are baying for blood. Recent reports of four gay couples attempting to marry in Lusaka, which is against Zambian law, set off a firestorm of critiques – including fear that the news report was fabricated in an effort to dismantle the country’s LGBT rights movement.

Since the drafting of Zambia’s new constitution began in November 2011, the topic of homosexuality has become popular and daggers have been drawn against LGBT people. In recent months, a government-owned newspaper, The Daily Mail, has been awash with homophobic rhetoric.

A Zambian LGBT rights organization, Friends of RAINKA, has received reports that plain clothes police have started inspecting homes and offices of known LGBT activists.

“Police have launched a man hunt for LGBT activists and have called on the general populace to report any suspected homosexuals to the police for further investigation,” Friends of RAINKA said, adding that the officers have disturbed NGO work and peoples’ personal lives.

The LGBT rights group also took a swipe at the media for what appears to be a campaign to create fictitious stories in an attempt to invoke hatred and violence against LGBT people.

Last week, The Daily Mail reported that four gay couples (a mix of Zambians and foreigners) had attempted to register their marriages with the government. Soon after the reports surfaced, activists began to question the validity of the reports – no one had heard of the couples, and the story of foreigners importing homosexuality into the country appeared easy fodder for hate rhetoric.

“To this day, we are yet to receive confirmed reports of the whereabouts of the four gay couples who were purported to have appeared before the Lusaka marriage registrar,” said Friends of RAINKA.

“They remain unknown to anyone else in the community and are believed to be part of a fictitious ploy employed by enemies of the community in a quest to distract the nation from discussing ongoing social, economic and political challenges.”

The same day, the blog ZambiaWatchDog ran an article about Zambian activist Chalwe Ranney titled ‘Attempted gay marriage was bad strategy –activist’, in which they ripped comments Ranney allegedly made on an LGBT blog. This article added fuel to the already-fiery debates about homosexuality in the print and online media, and outed Ranney as a gay activist.

Ranney, blistered by the attack, is now reportedly in hiding.

These attacks in the media come on the heels of a police spokesperson’s plea for Zambians to report known or suspected homosexuals to the police, taking the violence from the media to the streets.

Emboldened by this public endorsement, police arrested HIV/AIDS activist Paul Kasonkomona on Monday at a TV studio in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. Kasonkomona had recently appeared on a live TV program called ‘The Assignment’ to discuss the importance of access to healthcare for sex-workers, prisoners and LGBT people.

Friends of RAINKA deplored the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, and invited support and solidarity from other civil society organizations.

“As the LGBT community, we welcome support from other civil society organizations and ordinary members of the community who have come out in full support of the LGBT community regardless of race, religion, gender or other status and although this may appear to be an inopportune time, in an intolerant Zambia, that inopportune time, may never come therefore we stand in solidarity with Paul Kasonkomona and all the other activists tirelessly working to change the current status quo.”

Friends of RAINKA also said a few non-governmental organizations that campaign for the rights of LGBT people have implored Zambians to critically reflect on human rights and for Christians to redefine their roles.

“We appeal to all our partners and friends around the country to come out in full support of the LGBT activists on the ground who are feeling the brunt of the current state sponsored homophobia and transphobia fueled by continued hate and scapegoating of LGBT people as a ruse to fool the public into discussing trivial matters as opposed to the ongoing constitution making process.”

This week didn’t start off any better.

On Monday, The Daily Mail carried a story titled ‘Cage gays, chiefs urge State’  which chronicled two traditional chiefs urging the government to arrest gay couples in the country. Speaking in two separate interviews, one of the chiefs said, “It is not a culture of Zambians, Africans and Ngonis to practice homosexuality and gay people should be caged,” while the other reiterated that Zambia, as a Christian nation, has “no room for gay rights.”

Compounding these statements, The Human Rights Commission of Zambia reiterated their position on LGBT rights when spokesperson Samuel Kasanka said: “The position of the Human Rights Commission on the issue of same sex marriages has not changed. It’s abnormal and as a country, we cannot accept that.”

While the Zambian public remains fixated with questions of sexuality and gender, the government and a select few are discussing the constitution. However, activists fear, especially given the recent uptick in anti-LGBT rhetoric, that the new charter will backslide on human rights for LGBT people. Homosexuality currently carries a prison sentence of no less than 5 years in the Zambia.

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