What you need to know:
- The Commission, however, did not award damages to any party but asked those dissatisfied with the decision to appeal within 30 days.
The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has ordered Pastor Martin Ssempa of Makerere Community Church in Kampala to stop posting content which could cause stigma against people living with HIV/Aids on his social media platforms.
“The respondent (Pastor Ssempa) while expressing his right to freedom of expression, prejudiced the right to freedom of association and the right to freedom from discrimination for people living with HIV/Aids,” the vice chairman Joel Cox Ojuko ruled yesterday.
He added: “He cannot, therefore, be given unlimited latitude to use his X (formerly Twitter) posts as a channel of abuse and promotion of discrimination against people living with HIV/Aids for which there is no demonstrable justification whatsoever in his tweets which he failed on all fronts to prove that the beauty pageant was a means of spreading HIV.”
The Commission also ordered the cleric to pull down any messages deemed discriminatory against people living with HIV/Aids from his social media accounts.
“The respondent (Pastor Ssempa) shall within a period not exceeding 14 days effectively withdraw any discriminating and stigmatising statements posted on his X (formerly Twitter) page against the complainant and all persons living with or affected by HIV/Aids,” the EOC stated.
The Commission, however, did not award damages to any party but asked those dissatisfied with the decision to appeal within 30 days.
It added that in a bid to promote social harmony and strike a social equilibrium in society, it was unnecessary to impose a custodial sentence against Pastor Ssempa.
In 2019, the Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD), a civil society organisation, dragged Pastor Ssempa to the EOC, accusing him of circulating comments on his social media platforms that were discriminatory, stigmatising and affront to the dignity of persons living with HIV.
This followed a comment posted on the cleric’s X (formerly Twitter) handle in regard to the Y+ beauty pageant.
Defending the Y+ beauty pageant, the civil society organisation said the same had been organised to encourage young people living with HIV/Aids to disclose their status and seek medication without fear of stigmatisation.
CEHURD claimed Pastor Ssempa’s actions were contrary to Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality and freedom from discrimination and Article 24 which guarantees freedom from cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.
In response, Pastor Ssempa claimed he was exercising his freedom of expression and he too was involved in the fight against HIV/Aids.
Ms Noor Musisi, the deputy executive director of CEHURD, last evening welcomed the ruling.
“Everyone in Uganda is affected by the HIV epidemic. Over 1.5 million Ugandans are living with HIV, and today adolescents with HIV are standing proudly—without shame—on the front lines of efforts to secure access to quality HIV treatment and prevention for all, with dignity,” Ms Musisi said.
Another civil society personality, Ms Gloria Nawanyaga, the founder of GILO, said: “Pastor Ssempa’s rhetoric targeting people living with HIV weakens Uganda’s effort to prevent, treat and defeat HIV. He is fueling stigma and discrimination, which is associated with worse health outcomes for people living with HIV.”
She added: “In addition to a positive judgement in this case, the government should repeal the discriminatory laws set out in the HIV/Aids Prevention and Control Act, which criminalise people living with HIV and increase the likelihood of precisely the disparaging remarks.”
When contacted yesterday, Pastor Ssempa expressed dissatisfaction with the EOC decision.
“We do not agree with the judgment and I think the court got it completely wrong because it’s an issue of freedom of speech and also of the rights of the uninfected and protecting people who do not have HIV and speaking for their rights,” he said.
“I criticised this miss HIV beauty contest because it was not helping us to go forward in fighting the prevention of HIV/Aids and I told them that we need balance when you’re fighting stigma,” he added.
About the HIV beauty contest
The Y+ beauty pageant began in 2014 and was organised by the Uganda Network of Young People living with HIV/Aids (UNYPA) for people living with HIV after a girl was rejected from participating in a similar event due to her HIV status.
The Y+ beauty pageant aims to reduce the stigma young people living with HIV face on a daily basis.
During the fourth edition of the pageant in 2020, Pastor Ssempa challenged the initiative, saying it does not in any way help in the fight against HIV.