A new season of Current TV’s Vanguard starts next week, but you can get a sneak peek at the upcoming season starting today here on Hulu. First up: Correspondent Mariana van Zeller traveled to Uganda to report on proposed anti-gay legislation that would put homosexuals in jail for life, a bill that has ties to the evangelical movement here in America. Just after receiving a Peabody Award for her coverage of the prescription drug trade in South Florida (“The OxyContin Express“), van Zeller spoke to Hulu about her newest report,”Missionaries of Hate,” and her interview with her former boss, Laura Ling, the journalist who was imprisoned (along with producer Euna Lee) in North Korea last summer. Our Q&A follows. — Rebecca Harper (), Editor
What brought you to Uganda for this story?
When I first heard about this story, there was a small clip in the newspaper about this really harsh anti-gay legislation that had been introduced in Uganda. It would basically put gays in prison for life or, in some cases, [they could be given the] death sentence. Immediately, I thought this would be a story that would fit with Vanguard and one that I would be very interested in covering. It was a small clip, and the story wasn’t being widely reported. Shortly after this, I heard a radio interview where Terry Gross from NPR was interviewing Jeff Sharlet, who had just written a book [The Family] and had been doing some reporting about how American evangelicals had some sort of influence on this bill. That was when we decided this was a very important story for us to do, and we really wanted to dig deep and investigate how far this influence had gotten, and how much influence American evangelicals actually had on this bill. A month later, we were on a plane to Uganda.
We actually got there at a very important time in this bill. [We had access to] the backers of this bill, including the creator of the bill and the face of it, this Ugandan evangelical, a pastor called Pastor Ssempa. They were both together with all the other backers of the bill, really going out there and campaigning. It was sort of their last effort to try to make this bill pass, and they were actually getting a lot of people on their side. We followed them around for almost 10 days, and they had church rallies and mass protests. Every single venue that we attended with them was always packed. The most surprising thing for us was that it wasn’t just … you know when you go to church congregations in the West, and the majority of people are usually older people? Well in the church congregations and venues and rallies that we attended with them in Uganda, the majority of the congregation is actually young people, young people who are actually very supportive of the bill and had very anti-gay stances.
Well, in the episode, I noticed that Pastor Ssempa has a way of speaking that engages his audience — you can’t help but watch and listen.
He’s incredibly charismatic, and in speaking to some of these young people, it is incredible how much they admire him and how much they believe every word he says. So if Pastor Ssempa is saying to kids that homosexuality is evil and God will punish every single homosexual — and it’s their duty as a good Christian to go after these homosexuals — well, that’s what they do. That’s what sort of scary about this campaign.
When you were in Uganda, your tour guide, Long John, was gay. How did you find him? Was he an activist who had been outed in the newspaper?
As soon as we got to Uganda, one of our main goals was to sort of get to know what life is like for gays in Uganda. We had seen some news articles about this legislation here in the West, but there was rarely anything about what life is actually like for gay people in Uganda. So we went and met first with some gay rights organizations and sort of through talking to them, got to know this guy known as “Long John.” He’s not an activist himself, but he’s a person who’s been affected on several levels. He’s lost his job, he’s been threatened physically several times. Right after we left, he had to move to another house because his neighbors and the landlord didn’t want him there. He’s been put in jail for being gay. This unfortunately is not the exception; this is the rule for people who are openly gay in Uganda.
Can you tell us about this proposed bill and its implications for gays in Uganda?
It’s already illegal to be gay in Uganda. What this bill does is, it makes being gay in Uganda even more difficult. If you are gay in Uganda, you can get a life sentence — be put in prison for life — or in some cases, such as repeat offenders, you can suffer the death penalty. Another thing that this bill does is, if you know that somebody is homosexual, it is mandatory for you to tell the authorities, even if it’s your son or your mother. And if you don’t, you yourself can be put in jail for up to four years.
It makes everybody sort of be looking over each other’s shoulder. It separates families, because if you’re a homosexual and want to tell your family, your parents, you know you’re putting them at risk. If this bill passed, you’d put them at risk of ending up in jail themselves. The last thing you want to do is go and put them in jail.
And this bill hasn’t passed yet, right?
Yeah, it hasn’t passed yet. Recently there was a committee that came out of the Ugandan parliament that put out a strong recommendation for the bill not to pass. However, the bill isn’t entirely dead yet, and many people in the gay rights community are hoping that the bill will die as a result of the international pressure that has been put on the Ugandan president for the bill not to pass. But speaking to some of the supporters of the bill, they think that it will pass sooner or later; it’s just a matter of time. They still strongly believe that it will pass. This is an election year in Uganda, and over 90 percent of Ugandans are against homosexuality, so Pastor Ssempa himself told us that if the president were to not pass this bill, he could suffer politically. The president is sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, if he doesn’t pass the bill, he could lose a lot of internal support; if he does pass the bill, he could lose a lot of international aid, and Uganda is heavily dependent on international aid.
If it did pass, where would homosexuals in Uganda, people like Long John, end up?
The majority of gay people that we spoke to told us that, if the bill were to pass, they would be forced out of their country. For them, it wasn’t at all an easy decision. Uganda is their country; they have their whole family, their friends, their jobs, their lives in Uganda. For them to think that they might have to leave because they may be put in prison for life or even killed if they stayed, it is extremely painful. It wasn’t something they said easily. There aren’t a lot of places for them to go because, unfortunately, this wave of anti-gay sentiment is going across all of Africa. It’s not as if they can pop over to Malawi, where just yesterday news came out that this same-sex couple was sentenced to 14 years in jail because they held a symbolic marriage.
Not only are the backers of this bill, such as Pastor Ssempa and David Bahati, the creator of the bill, extremely proud that their country is being seen as this anti-gay symbol in the world, but they were extremely hopeful that the other countries around Uganda in Africa would follow their example. In fact, they said that they’d been receiving numerous calls from politicians from all over Africa who were trying to emulate this bill, and that is a very scary scenario.
Can you tell us about the influence of outsiders on this bill, specifically the presence of American evangelicals like Scott Lively?
Basically, when you ask where the idea of this bill started, the majority of the gay community in Uganda will point to this conference that happened in March 2009, where three American evangelicals traveled to Uganda and were headliners at this conference. They spoke at length about how the gay agenda is evil, and how gays are out there to recruit children into homosexuality. Shortly after, just a few months after this conference, this anti-gay bill was drafted. The gay rights community sees an important link between these two. In fact, they say that before these American evangelicals came to Uganda, the language such as “the recruitment of children” and “the gay agenda” didn’t even exist in Uganda. Now, if you go to any of these Pastor Ssempa rallies or you hear David Bahati speak, this is all they’ll say. They’ll tell you that “we have to pass this bill because our children are at risk. They are trying to recruit our children to become homosexuals.” The language is actually scarily similar.
A few weeks after we came back, we finally got an interview with Scott Lively and we asked him what he thought of this bill. It surprised us that he knew there was a bill being drafted when he went to Uganda. The sense we got from him was that, if he were to draft the bill himself, he would not include the death penalty. He thinks they might have gone too far, but as he says himself, “what is the lesser of two evils: to have a bill that is overly harsh, or to have this sort of gay agenda that is being pushed down the throats of these Africans from the West?” We’ll let him answer that.
In this report, you mention that Ugandans would spend $50 on a ticket to see the white Christian evangelicals talk — and that’s more than most of them would make in a month. What do you think is the draw?
We actually asked the exact question to a gay rights activist, Pepe, who’s also profiled in the piece. The way she put it was, “We so admire the people in the United States. America means everything to us, we try to emulate America all the time. So to have an American evangelical come to our country and tell us how we should feel or think about homosexuals, it is obvious that we are going to follow that. It’s obvious that the majority of people are going to accept that as the truth and the fact.” It seems that, in many ways, that’s what happened.
What about AIDS, is there a perception of AIDS and homosexuality being linked in Uganda, hence the backlash?
Uganda was actually one of the most progressive countries when it came to the fight against AIDS. For many years, while the rate of AIDS growth in other countries was actually increasing, it was actually decreasing in Uganda. That was mainly because of the ABC — Abstinence, Be faithful and Condom — program that they really implemented in Uganda. It had enormous success. However, with President Bush and the PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] program, which poured millions of dollars into Uganda, it put focus on the abstinence side of the ABC. Instead of telling people to use condoms, it was telling people not to have sex. Many people believed it had a negative impact on AIDS in the country and they think that, in coming years, AIDS is already growing and will start growing even more. Of course, if this bill is introduced, anyone working in AIDS in Uganda will say this could have a devastating impact [in the fight against] AIDS in the country. People won’t want to come out or tell their doctors or family that they’re having sex with other men. Doctors can end up in jail if they decide to run an AIDS test on someone they suspect is gay and don’t report them to the police first. This is going to put more people in the closet.
Do you know how many gays there are in Uganda?
No, it’s obviously so hard to know. I actually asked a gay Ugandan if he thought there were more Ugandans who out of the closet or in the closet. He said that those who stay in the closets far, far outnumber those who come out. Coming out of the closet in Uganda is like committing suicide — it’s suicidal, he said, those were his words. They get shunned by their family, they get made fun of by everyone around them, and in some cases, they get put in prison, they lose their jobs and their homes, and get physically abused.
Your work has taken you to some dangerous locales. While you weren’t escorted by young men carrying automatic rifles this time, did you have any interesting encounters on this assignment?
I was four-and-a-half months pregnant when I was traveling there, and as soon as I told Pastor Ssempa and a few others that I was pregnant, they held my belly and started preaching for my baby not to be homosexual. It happened three times with three different pastors. I couldn’t do anything — it was just before I was about to interview them, and obviously I wanted them to speak openly to me about this bill. It was such a crazy experience.
From the start, we wanted to get this perspective of what it’s like to be gay in Uganda. We wanted to really go in deep and spend time with gays in Uganda. Through Long John and a couple of others, we were able to do that. What really surprised us was that even with everything that has happened to them and all the threats they have to endure, and the possibility of this law passing, they are so courageous. They thought it was so important for them to this story, to raise awareness for what is happening in their country that they were willing to speak to us knowing that there could be repercussions. They thought it was so important to put it out there. That was really surprising; we thought it would be more difficult.
Let’s talk about your Peabody Award for “The OxyContin Express.” When did you find out and how?
Oh, it’s a great story. My dad was in town, visiting. Darren [Foster], my husband and producer, who also won the award, found out and couldn’t get a hold of me. He called my dad, but I wasn’t actually with my dad at that time. So my dad got the news and five minutes later, when I arrived, I looked at my dad and he was crying. He said “I have some amazing some news,” and I said “What’s wrong, dad? Why are you crying?” And he said “You won a Peabody.” Hearing the news that I won the Peabody, which obviously is the dream of anyone in TV, but hearing it from my dad’s mouth and knowing how proud he was, it was amazing. The ceremony was held this Monday. It was incredible, just being in the presence of some of the female journalists that I’ve admired my whole life, like Diane Sawyer and Lyse Doucet from the BBC. Just being in the presence of these monsters in journalism, being in the same room and going up there to receive the award was an incredible honor.
The Vanguard special featuring Laura Ling aired last night. Can you tell us about the interview, which covers her experiences while she were imprisoned in North Korea?
You know, Laura was my boss for four years, was my colleague and is my dear, dear friend. To be able to sit down and interview her about the hardest time in her life was an incredible opportunity for me. What I think we got was a very personal story from Laura about what happened while she was there. My part of it was just a sit-down interview with Laura that took us everywhere from why she went there in the first place, what story she was reporting on, what happened on the river the day she was captured, whether she knew she was doing something illegal, and then everything that she experienced while in captivity until Bill Clinton came to rescue [her and producer Euna Lee].
You have two other stories on the way this season. What are they?
There’s “Rape on the Reservation.” One out of every three American Indian women is raped in their lifetime in the United States. It’s a crazy, staggering statistic. So we went to the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota to investigate these high rates of rape and violence against women.
The other piece is about soccer trafficking, the trafficking of African soccer players to Europe. It’s the first time that Africa is hosting the World Cup. The World Cup is the biggest sports event in the world, and we take a look at the ugly side of the sport in Africa and Europe. Always the uplifting stories, Rebecca. We always try to make people smile. [Laughs.]
Someone’s got to do it! Well, we’re looking forward to the new season. Thanks for your time, Mariana.
New episodes of Vanguard are posted each Thursday on Hulu. On Wednesday, May 26, we’ll also have the “Captive in North Korea” special, featuring journalist Laura Ling.