UGANDA: Stella Nyanzi’s next hearing set for August 21
Update #1 to RAN 09/17
PEN continues to call for the charges to be dropped against prominent feminist academic and activist Dr. Stella Nyanzi in advance of her next court hearing on August 21. Dr. Nyanzi was arrested on April 7, 2017, and charged three days later with cyber harassment and offensive communication, for her Facebook posts criticizing Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, in particular one where she referred to the president as a “pair of buttocks.” She was released on bail on May 10 after spending 33 days in detention.
PEN considers that Nyanzi has been charged for peacefully expressing her views and calls on the Ugandan authorities to uphold freedom of expression by dropping the charges against her and allowing her to continue her work.
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Please send appeals urging the Ugandan authorities to:
- Immediately and unconditionally drop the charges against Dr. Stella Nyanzi;
- Comply with their obligations to protect freedom of expression as protected in the Ugandan Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Uganda is a state party.
Please write to:
Mr. Mike Chibita
Major General (rtd) Kahinda Otafiire
Please copy your appeals to the Embassy of Uganda in your country. A list of embassies can be found here.
***Please contact PEN International if sending appeals after August 21, 2017*** Please inform us of any action you take, and of any responses you receive.
Dr. Nyanzi, who often uses provocative language and metaphor in her writings and her social media posts, was arrested on April 7, 2017, and charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication under the Computer Misuse Act of 2011 on April 10. The charges are based on Facebook posts, in particular one from January 2017 in which she called President Yoweri Museveni a “pair of buttocks.”
At the hearing on April 10, Dr. Nyanzi was denied bail and the prosecution called for an investigation into her mental health. When Dr. Nyanzi appeared in court again on April 25, her bail application was postponed until May 10, when, after 33 days in prison, her bail application was finally heard and approved. Reports indicated Dr. Nyanzi was unwell at the hearing on May 10. Nyanzi later posted on her Facebook page that she had become unwell in prison but was on medication to treat her illnesses.
In May, Dr. Nyanzi filed a petition before the Constitutional Court challenging the colonial-era Mental Treatment Act. On June 20, 2017, the Chief Magistrate at Buganda Road Magistrates Court stayed proceedings intended to inquire into the mental state of Dr. Nyanzi, pending her petition to the Constitutional Court. The court also denied the state’s request to cancel her bail, as Dr. Nyanzi’s Facebook posts criticizing the State Attorney did not violate the sub-judice rule (a rule that governs what public statements can be made about ongoing legal proceedings) or amount to contempt of court.
After the June 20 ruling, Dr. Nyanzi stated on her public Facebook page that although the criminal case and the constitutional petition had not yet been heard and “although it is still early days, these two wins have restored my faith in Uganda’s justice systems.” In response to the Chief Magistrate asking her to “tone down on [her] language”, Dr. Nyanzi stated:
[B]ecause this Chief Magi. got the essence of my Facebook post and granted me double-justice, I am indeed going to soften my language when discussing matters concerning the case before him. While I do not negotiate with dictators, I can break my hard will and reign in my dangerously hot grenades of words when faced with a just magi.
According to reports, a court hearing on July 21 was adjourned until August 21, to allow the State Attorney time to consult the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) on how to proceed with the trial.
In the months leading up to her arrest, Dr. Nyanzi had been outspoken in her criticism of President Museveni and his wife Janet, who is also the Minister of Education. In particular, she had criticized the government’s failure to fulfill President Museveni’s 2016 election campaign promise to provide sanitary pads to all schoolgirls. Dr. Nyanzi subsequently started a campaign to raise money to buy and distribute sanitary pads for the schoolgirls. She was questioned by police in early March and was prevented from boarding a plane to the Netherlands to attend an academic conference on March 19. She was arrested on April 7 in Kampala after attending a talk at the Rotary Club about the campaign.
According to the Guardian, referencing a Facebook post of an activist who attended the hearing on April 10, Dr. Nyanzi is alleged to have responded to the charges by saying:
Offensive communication? Who is offended? How long are Ugandans going to be silent because of fear […] I am an academic, poet. A writer. I use my writing metaphorically. I have called the president impotent, a rapist, a pathetic pair of buttocks. He lied to voters that he would provide pads and Ugandans are offended that he is such a dishonourable man. It is we who are offended, not him.
The African Studies Association has pointed to the long history of the use of provocative speech in Uganda’s public life and referred to Dr. Nyanzi’s posts on Facebook and other media as standing in this same tradition.
The right of free speech is enshrined in Uganda’s Constitution and, as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Uganda has the obligation to protect freedom of expression. Freedom of expression includes the right to offend, particularly within the context of thoughts and opinions relating to public officials. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which oversees the implementation of the ICCPR, has made clear that the “mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties.” Human rights bodies have also pointed out that heads of state and public figures should tolerate a higher degree of criticism than ordinary citizens.