Reporters say anti-gay bill has been shelved – Ugandan politicians disagree

Yesterday, the author of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, David Bahati, told me via email that he remains confident that his bill will be considered by Parliament before May. I asked him about a report in the Observer which implied the bill would not be passed. Bahati said in response:

My comment is the same as I gave you before. We are committed to ensuring that this legislation passes.

Wondering if Bahati’s optimism was misplaced, I today called Stephen Tashobya, the chair of the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee. This committee must act on the bill if it is to see action in Parliament. I first spoke with Mr. Tashobya in December, 2010. Today, Mr. Tashobya told me that nothing had changed regarding the time table for considering the bill. He said the Parliament will reconvene very soon after the February 18 elections and consider the remaining bills, including the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. I asked him specifically about his reaction to press reports that the bill had been shelved. He answered,

No. I think I can say with some authority that this is not true, because I would be one of the first to know this because it is before my committee.

Just last week the AP said the bill had been “shelved” and the Christian Science Monitor said the bill had “fizzled.” Note that these reports do not cite sources; the statement is made without attribution. As far as I can recollect, none of the reports saying the AHB has been withdrawn provide any sourcing. On the other hand, those who report that the bill is alive provide sources and interview those who are closest to the bill, as I have today.

Here is an example from the Christian Science Monitor writing about the recent court ruling barring the Rolling Stone from outing gays. Reporter Ioannis Gatsiounis said this about the AHB:

Homosexuality emerged as a hot-button issue in Uganda this year after a draft bill called for the death penalty for some homosexual offenders.

That bill fizzled amid significant pressure from the international community, but critics of the new antipornography bill say it, too, could be used as a pretext to target homosexuals.

Note that the reporter gives no source for the claim.

On the other hand, Jeff Sharlet reported a conversation with Bahati on the matter. CNN interviewed David Bahati who said clearly that the bill would be considered. In November, Bahati told me that the bill would be considered before the Parliament ended in May. He confirmed that again to Rachel Maddow in December when he was in the US. Finally, Stephen Tashobya, the chair of the Ugandan committee which has jurisdiction over the bill, told me that the Anti-Homosexuality would be considered after the nation holds elections in February. Today, he said nothing has changed.

Back in January, 2010, President Yoweri Museveni told his party members that the supporters of the bill needed to work with the Europeans and Americans on the issue; he did not say to shelve it – at least in public. Some sources have told me on the condition of anonymity that Museveni has assured the US that the bill will be vetoed. However, he has not to my knowledge said that publicly. Mr. Tashobya told me that the President has not indicated any position on the situation to him. Tashobya also told me he has no reason to think that the President will not allow the bill to become law, with possible amendments.

At least one prediction about the bill has not come true. In May, the New York Times reported that a government minister, Adolf Mwesige believed the bill would be voted down within weeks. Perhaps, this report has been taken as the end of the matter. However, the bill was not voted down, it remains before committee with the chair saying he intends to consider all bills before May.

The picture is complicated with some evidence that the bill might not pass. However, writing that the AHB has been shelved or not in play is not accurate reporting.

UPDATE: Here is a pretty accurate report… Also note that the opposition to Museveni does not favor criminalization of homosexuality.

See also: 

Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill: A status report (May, 2010)

Uganda: Committee Chair describes Anti-Homosexuality Bill timetable

This morning I spoke with Stephen Tashobya, the chair of the Ugandan Parliament’s Legal and Affairs committee. This committee has jurisdiction over the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. I asked Hon. Tashobya if he had any current plan for action on the AHB. He told me that the Parliament was currently preoccupied with the upcoming Christmas break and then the elections. About the AHB, he said, “So I suppose I can say it will come up after elections which is the 18th of February.”

He said he did not promise that the bill would be next in line, but said

Ideally, what we are trying to do is to ensure that we clear all the bills that are before the committee before the end of this Parliament in May. I am not in a position to say we are going to handle it in this time framework, but we are trying to get out all of the bills by the end of May, including that one [the AHB].

Mr. Tashobya confirmed that if the bill is not considered during this Parliament, then a new bill would need to be tabled in the next one. He then outlined the procedure he envisioned for the bill.

What I can say is that there is special interest in that bill, both for and against and we are mindful of the interest in that bill. We are looking first of all in the context of the Parliament and the public interest, we are trying to see how we can handle it. We shall have public hearings, where all come and give their views and finally the committee report will take into account those views we are receiving from the public.

Mr. Tashobya said that the committee report would be presented then to the Parliament as a whole and discussed prior to a second and third reading. Often the required second and third reading occurs on the same day, followed by the vote, also on that same day. If passed, the bill is sent on to President Museveni. At that point, Museveni could do nothing and allow the bill to become law or he could send it back to Parliament if there were elements he did not like. However, according to Mr. Tashobya, that would be “unusual” saying, “In the life of this Parliament, he has not sent a bill back.”

For opponents of the AHB, it appears that the public opportunity to speak out will be in a relatively short window in the public hearings convened by the Legal and Parliamentary Committee sometime between late February and early May.