An editorial cartoon published by the Daily Monitor newspaper has drawn the ire of the Uganda Catholic Lawyers Society.
A letter signed by Mr Jude Mbabaali, president of the Society, says the cartoon was intended to “demean or mock the Catholic religion.” Mbabaali is also the LC5 chairperson of Masaka district.
The cartoon titled ‘The Lost Supper’ was drawn by Mr Chris ‘Ogon’ Atukwasize, the newspaper’s cartoonist, and published on 23 May. It depicts a caricature of President Yoweri Museveni dressed in clerical vestments, the stole embroidered with images of the coronavirus. On his side is Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, dressed in less elaborate vestments with a knife in his hands. The altar before the two men has a thermal mug in place of a chalice, with a teabag string labeled “IMF” hanging from it. Instead of the Eucharist bread, the paten is filled with posho. The President holds a small lump of posho in his raised hands and says, “… Take this, vulnerable people and eat it … This is my posho, given for you, in memory of me … when that time comes.”
The cartoon was published after weeks of news reports about problems in the delivery of food relief to Kampala and Wakiso residents whose livelihood was impacted by coronavirus containment measures. There are widespread complaints that the food relief package is insufficient to meet the needs of the large population of urban poor it is intended to feed. The food package contains six kilogrammes of maize flour, three kilogrammes of beans and a salt for each individual. Lactating mothers and the sick will receive an additional two kilogrammes of powdered milk and two kilogrammes of sugar.
In a recent cabinet meeting, President Museveni, who government officials have portrayed as the benefactor behind the food relief, went to great lengths to show ministers that the maize meal provided was more than adequate for a single meal.
I asked the kitchen staff to prepare 1kg of the maize flour from the food being distributed by the COVID-19 relief team. My intention was to understand how an individual can consume this food optimally during this period. pic.twitter.com/FAQmefRysk
— Yoweri K Museveni (@KagutaMuseveni) May 18, 2020
Although the Daily Monitor cartoon clearly appears to be about Museveni and his government’s response to hardships posed by the Covid-19 lockdown, Mbabaali, who is a member of the opposition Democratic Party, says it targets the Catholic Church and religion.
In the letter dated 1 June, 2020, Mbabaali also wants an apology from Mr Allan Mujuni, a comedian known by the stage name Amooti Omubalanguzi, for a video circulated on social media. In the short video Amooti is dressed as a priest, poking fun at social distancing rules. He ‘celebrates’ Holy Communion, serving the elements of the Eucharist by tossing bread into the crowd and pouring wine into the mouths of ‘congregants’ using a spray bottle.
According to Mbabaali both the cartoon and the video “amount to insulting the Catholic religion and wounding the feelings of Catholics”. He adds that the “actions crossed the bottom line of civilized society and the ethical boundary of free speech and offend human conscience.”
Mbabaali says the cartoonist and comedian must apologise within three days of the complaint or risk facing court action. He also wants Atukwasize to be disciplined by the newspaper “for specialising in drawing cartoons demeaning Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church”.
But the cartoonist says Mbabaali’s reaction is exaggerated and that there is no evidence that the depictions in the cartoon are ‘Catholic’.
“It is their right to interpret it (the cartoon) whichever way they believe,” he says. “I have no control over how readers interpret artwork.”
In his column published on 29 May, Nation Media Group Public Editor Charles Odoobo Bichachi addressed similar complaints about the cartoon. He said editorial cartoons “do not necessarily set out to amuse or annoy; they set out to persuade readers to see their point of view on a prevailing issue, often with a tinge of humour”.
“In this case, the cartoonist tried to illustrate the linkage between the ongoing distribution of relief food and the coming political season,” he added.
Comedian Amooti says he has not received the letter or any communication from the Catholic Church and therefore has not responded to the demand for an apology.
Art, religion, and controversy
Through the centuries religion has been a subject of humour, satire, and caricature. While some art is a direct attack on religious establishments and officials, often it is used to discuss broader societal phenomena.
For a large number of people there exists a thin line between satire and slander, and offence is often taken where none is intended. Uganda is not exempt from this tension.
In 1977, Byron Kawadwa a promising young Ugandan playwright, was murdered by suspected members of President Idi Amin’s secret police, it is widely because his play, ‘Oluyimba lwa Wankoko’ (Song of the Cockerel). The play was a biting satire of Uganda’s post-independence politics.
In recent years, several songs spoofing political leaders or lampooning the government have been banned from radio airplay. Although Ugandan courts have presided over a few cases in which newspapers were accused of using editorial cartoons to ridicule and demean people, generally cartoonists have been spared much of the courtroom battles that publishers and editors have been subjected to.
By and large, the religious establishment in Uganda has accepted editorial cartoons and other satirical artistic forms as par for the course. But elsewhere in the world, there has been significant pushback.
In 2005 deadly riots broke out across the Muslim world after a series of cartoons published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. One of the cartoons showed Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. Several prominent Muslim leaders pronounced death sentences on the cartoonist and editors of the newspaper.
Ten years later, two gunmen who identified themselves as members of Al-Qaeda, stormed the premises of the Paris-based magazine, Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people. The magazine was known for its satirical depictions of political and religious leaders.
Last year, an award-winning cartoon portraying an Indian catholic bishop as a rooster incensed church members in the state of Kerala. Kerala Lalitha Kala Akademi, the fine arts academy that awarded a prize for the cartoon, resisted calls from the church and state government to revoke it, stating that to do so would infringe on the right of citizens to free expression.
Image caption: ‘Lost Supper’ by Daily Monitor.