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Mainstream media marginalises

Behind the Mask understands itself as a communication initiative on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersex rights on the African continent and exists since 10 years. Their mission: To change negative attitudes towards homosexuality and same-sex traditions on the African continent. Their means: Independent, journalist activism.

Seven people are employed in the office in Johannesburg. Currently, two journalist interns additionally work there on a month based stipend. The website hosts daily news, country specific information and explanations on the legal situation regarding homosexuality, background dossiers on HIV/Aids and issues of medical care, the situation of women and human rights as well as event announcements. The site records 25.000 page visits per month. An interview with the director of Behind the Mask, Thuli Madi.

“There is an air of cautious optimism in South Africa“, states the official website of the 2010 FIFA World Cup about your country being the host. Are you also cautiously optimistic about the upcoming event?
Thuli Madi: It’s a historical event in our country as we are the first country in Africa to host the FIFA World Cup. And so as residents, it’s a big thing and we are equally happy and proud.

South Africa has been the world´s first nation whose constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of sexual orientation or bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Some critics point out that the gaining of formal rights in South Africa is just another white, male and middle class project, mainly granting privileges to a minority while for a majority, those rights only exist on paper.
I disagree. All races of homosexual people in SA are happy with the constitution recognising same-sex relationships but we are totally unhappy that service providers [i.e. police, healthcare workers etc] have not been trained on how to protect our rights from homophobic violent acts and because of this, rights gained are not beneficial at all. We are nothing but disappointed with the state not meeting these basic needs. Same-sex Unions have been seen as a priority for white homosexual people than their black counterparts who have other pressing needs such as poverty, unemployment etc. This does not, however mean that black homosexual people do not enjoy the right to get married and have families because they do.

You founded “Behind the Mask“ ten years ago. What does your name mean?
The founder of our organisation, Bart Luirink, a Dutch Journalist, chose it to describe people who are living a lie as far as their sexual orientation is concerned. During his travels in different parts of Africa, in the late 90’s, he had met a lot of homosexual people who lived a heterosexual life fearing being victimised if they exposed their sexual orientation. Homosexuality is still viewed as unAfrican and a Western concept in many parts of the African continent.

You consider independent journalist activism as one of your main campaigning tools.
This entails journalistic coverage of news and events affecting LGBTI people in the continent. Our team of in house journalists is responsible for covering this news as well as our trained correspondents in different parts of Africa who are the eyes and the ears of Behind the Mask, since we cannot be everywhere in the continent. This training is part of our Journalism Training Project which sees us identifying Active LGBTI people in different countries and training them on basic journalism skills in order for them to report on the issues they face on a day to day basis.

Issues, which are not mentioned in mainstream media?
LGBTI people have previously been marginalized by the mainstream media, with their news not covered at all, the little that was covered only focused on scandals and mostly misrepresented the LGBTI community. This is why we have recently trained ordinary members of society mostly LGBTI people to be citizen journalists in order for them to be able to unfold stories affecting LGBTI people in their respective areas in South Africa, and for them to take advantage of new media tools in order to make their voices heard. This training of ordinary citizens is part of our Citizen Journalism in Africa Project.

What is the aim of your news reporting?
To inform, educate, raise awareness and hold authorities accountable on issues of LGBTI rights. We believe that the more people are informed the more they can be able to make informed decision on how to relate to LGBTI people having learnt that they are not monsters but human like everybody else. We also believe that our incessant requests for comments from policy makers and other authorities help raise awareness which will hopefully influence policy changes.

What kind of role does mainstream media on the African continent play to dismantle or perpetuate the myth that homosexuality is unAfrican?

Media houses in most countries are state owned and since homosexuality is illegal in these countries, media institutions are reluctant to cover LGBTI news except in cases where they portray homosexuality as unAfrican, immoral and Ungodly. It is also difficult to say what role the media is playing since journalists are often empty shells who only report on what has been said without giving their opinions. However, with the exception of South Africa where the media is slowly evolving to include fair coverage of LGBTI News, the media in countries like Uganda continues to harass LGBTI people through hate speech. The worst example is Uganda’s Tabloid “The Red Pepper, which on an annual basis will publish names, addresses and telephone numbers of suspected LGBTI people, putting these people in danger of violence by homophobic members of society also perpetrating stigma.

The naming and shaming is secured by the state?
I think it is about time media laws are being revisited because in the case of the Red Pepper, naming and shaming LGBTI people is not wrong since Clause 7.2 of the Journalism code of Ethics by the Independent Media Council of Uganda states that “Publications about private lives of individuals, without their consent, are not acceptable except where public interest overrides the right to privacy.” This is the case in many other countries since media laws are universal.

How do you counteract this reporting?
New Media has been quite instrumental in making voices of the minorities heard. The introduction of website, blogs, social networks etc have become an important platform for voices of the minorities to be heard. It is through the new media tools that we are able to show different sides of the story about homosexuality, to denounce homophobia, and to set the record straight that being a lesbian does not make one less of a woman and being gay does not make one less of a man. New media is participatory, meaning it makes it possible to get input from other members of society about the issues they face, something that was not happening with traditional media which only dished ideas with little possibility for ordinary people to have a say about it.

Homosexuality is often seen as a threat to a nation’s integrity, its family and religious values. How much are anti-homosexual sentiments mobilised in a nationalistic discourse of post-colonial states on the African continent?
At the moment, we are seeing a rise of religious fundamentalists up in arms when it comes to the issue of homosexuality and it’s becoming a trend in most African states, for example, in Uganda, Kenya and Zambia. Many Presidents have made hateful remarks about the acts of homosexuality and just how punishable it is. A same-sex couple was arrested in Malawi for having hosted a celebration for their union in their village. They were arrested and sentenced to 14 years until the President succumbed to pressure from the international human rights structures to release them as their arrest violated their human right as people. There are several articles on our website on this. The Gay and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) office was broken into two weeks ago by police hoping to find drugs and pornography. Two staff members were arrested even though there were no drugs found and computers were confiscated. There is a strong suspicion that it is an act of homophobia at its best in Zimbabwe. 

Male to male relationships are illegal in 36 African states, legal in 17, while their legal status is not known in 2. At the same time, What do you regard as the main priorities for an LGBTI agenda on the African continent?
At this point, many seem to prioritise legal reforms through the African Commission processes.

While gay activists took the lead in HIV/AIDS education at the beginning of the 1990s, especially the Treatment Action Campaign (T.A.C.), it seems like AIDS education in South Africa today is almost de-homosexualised. Your office has specific policies, which allow access to non-discriminatory medical insurance but is the HIV/AIDS issue still a pressing one on the LGBTI agenda today?
Yes, it still is. A lot of homosexual people of all races continue to get infected and affected by HIV on a daily basis. Until there is a cure for this disease, it will stop being a priority.

What are your wishes for the future?
To win the Lottery! Joking! Among others, for human rights, dignity and respect to be afforded not only to homosexual people but to everyone – as people, we should learn to embrace our differences, love one another and live in peace! This world, that way, would be a better place.

Nina Schulz

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Interview Mainstreammedien marginalisieren, analyse&kritik, 18.06.2010, p.28