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Uganda must release academic Stella Nyanzi and drop all charges against her

Monday 12 November 2018 - 12:19pm

Stella Nyanzi

12 November 2018 - PEN International and PEN Uganda are deeply concerned by the recent arrest and ongoing trial of the prominent Ugandan academic, writer and activist, Dr. Stella Nyanzi. Nyanzi was arrested on 2 November 2018 and charged with “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication” following messages she allegedly posted on Facebook about President Yoweri Museveni’s mother. Following a trial hearing on 9 November, Nyanzi was remanded in custody until the next hearing (22 November); she faces up to one year in jail if convicted. PEN International and PEN Uganda believe that the charges against Nyanzi are a violation of her right to freedom of expression, which, as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Uganda is obliged to protect. We call for Nyanzi’s immediate release and for all the charges against her to be dropped.

'Although President Museveni pretends to be a democratic leader, he has come down hard on his critics through government organs like the Uganda Police Force and the Uganda Communications Commission,' said Dr. Danson Sylvester Kahyana, President of PEN Uganda. 'The former has arrested and prosecuted critics; the latter has had critics like Kalundi Serumaga banned from broadcasting on Ugandan airwaves. The arrest of Dr. Stella Nyanzi follows this pattern.  While President Museveni has the right to take exception to Dr Nyanzi’s views, he does not have the right to gag people who find his rule oppressive.'

'These latest charges against Stella, and the potential penalty she faces if found guilty, are another cruel reminder of how often high-ranking political figures cynically exploit troubling legislation to shut down and punish critical voices,' said Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. 'The right to free speech is enshrined in Uganda's constitution and the authorities should release Stella immediately.'

Nyanzi, a fierce, public critic of President Museveni, is noted for her use of colourful, sometimes shocking language. The current charges against her are based on messages she allegedly posted on Facebook on the 16 and 19 September 2018, which the prosecution says implied that President Museveni’s mother’s womb was “cursed” and that it should have “burnt up on the unborn foetus [President Museveni].”

According to news reports, Nyanzi was arrested at Makerere University on 2 November and driven to the Special Investigations Division headquarters at Kireka. From there, she was transferred to Kira Division Police headquarters and detained. According to the same reports, Nyanzi’s lawyer says that his client did not know the charges against her until she appeared in court.

Nyanzi is charged under section 24 and 25 of the Computer Misuse Act, 2011. Section 25 states:

“Any person who wilfully and repeatedly uses electronic communication to disturb or attempts to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person with no purpose of legitimate communication whether or not a conversation ensues commits a misdemeanour and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding twenty-four currency points (480,000) or imprisonment not exceeding one year or both.”

In April 2017, Nyanzi was charged under the same legislation with insulting the president and violating his right to privacy after she allegedly posted messages on Facebook that described the president as “a pair of buttocks” and his wife, Janet, as “empty-brained.” That trial is also ongoing.

Violations of free expression in Uganda are rampant. Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 Press Freedom Index downgraded the country once again this year, ranking it 117 out of 180 countries (having previously ranked it 112 and 102). Nyanzi told PEN International in a 2017 interview:

“For those of us whose articulations criticise the government and its actors, those of us who question the status quo, those of us who expose the numerous everyday violations of citizens’ rights, those of us who resist and defy the system, their spaces for freedom of expression are shutting down fast. Gags, censors, intimidation, fines, threats, arrests, beatings, detention, raids, confiscation of materials, bans of our works, are increasing vices that the government metes out against us.”

PEN International and Ugandan PEN call on the Ugandan authorities to

  • Immediately and unconditionally release Dr. Stella Nyanzi;
  • Drop all charges against her;
  • Comply with their obligations to protect freedom of expression under the Ugandan Constitution and international law.

For further information, please contact Cathal Sheerin, Africa Programme Coordinator at PEN International, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, UK+44 (0)20 7405 0338 |Twitter: @pen_int | Facebook: www.facebook.com/peninternational | www.pen-international.org