In September 2018, the Ugandan writer and feminist activist Dr Stella Nyanzi published a poem on Facebook in which she criticised Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, and insulted his late mother. Nyanzi was charged two months later with ‘cyber harassment’ and ‘offensive communication’ under sections 24 and 25 of the 2011 Computer Misuse Act. At the first trial hearing, on 9 November, Nyanzi was remanded in custody and sent to Luzira Women’s Prison in Kampala, where she has been held ever since. She has reportedly suffered health problems while in prison.
On 1 August 2019, Nyanzi was convicted of the first charge and acquitted of the second. The following day, she was sentenced to eighteen months in prison. Her appeal hearing, originally scheduled for 25 September, was postponed until 10 October and delayed further after the trial judge, Lady Justice Flavia Anglin Senoga, asked for it to be held in her sitting chambers, something that would exclude the public and media. Nyanzi objected to the judge’s decision, saying it was unconstitutional and unlawful to hold an appeal in a ‘closed court’.
Nyanzi is a 45-year-old academic who has lectured at Makerere University. She is a vocal critic of President Museveni and is widely known for her anti-government posts on Facebook, which often take the form of poems, and for employing ‘radical rudeness’, a traditional Ugandan strategy for castigating those in power through the tactical use of public insults. The language she uses is deliberately colourful and aims to shock. She has campaigned on various issues, from free sanitary towels for schoolgirls (after the government reneged on a promise to provide them) to gay rights (homosexual acts are illegal in Uganda).
In Nyanzi’s poem, which was written to coincide with President Museveni’s seventy-fourth birthday, she suggested that Uganda would have been better off if his mother, Esteri Kokundeka, had miscarried him:
Yoweri, they say it was your birthday yesterday.
How nauseatingly disgusting a day!
I wish the acidic pus flooding Esteri’s cursed vaginal canal had
burnt up your unborn fetus.
Burnt you up as badly as you have corroded all morality and
professionalism out of our public institutions in Uganda.
The American Bar Association has voiced concerns about legal violations during the trial, including the abrupt closure of the defence case by the presiding magistrate. At a hearing on 2 August 2019, at which Nyanzi appeared via video link against her will, she bared her breasts in protest and complained that the ‘offensive communication’ charge had been dropped. ‘I intended to annoy Yoweri Museveni,’ she declared. ‘We are tired of his dictatorship.’ She later posted online: ‘My presence in your court as a suspect and prisoner highlights multiple facets of dictatorship. I exposed the entrenchment of autocracy … I refuse to be a mere spectator in the struggle to oust the worst dictator.’
Nyanzi has previously been arrested and charged with the same offences in connection with other Facebook posts about Museveni. In one, for which she is yet to be sentenced, she referred to him as ‘a pair of buttocks’. One only has to reflect on the derogatory comments about British politicians that are posted daily on social media to realise the farcical nature of the charges against Nyanzi. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has stated 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’. Other human rights bodies have pointed out that heads of state and other public figures should be able to tolerate a higher degree of criticism than ordinary citizens.
The repression of free speech in Uganda is common. Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 Press Freedom Index ranks Uganda 125th out of 180 countries. The authorities use colonial-era laws, such as criminal defamation, to curb dissent and have enacted new ones, such as the Computer Misuse Act, to clamp down on online criticism. Recent measures to regulate social media have further restricted the space for online expression. A social media tax, introduced in 2018, reportedly led many Ugandans to abandon social media, and in August 2019, a week after Nyanzi’s conviction, the Uganda Communications Commission decided to charge ‘social media influencers’ a $20 fee and make them register with the state regulator.
Readers might like to send appeals expressing concern at the conviction and sentencing of Dr Stella Nyanzi, calling on the authorities to release her immediately and unconditionally, and to repeal or amend the Computer Misuse Act to ensure full conformity with Uganda’s obligations to protect freedom of expression, as enshrined in the Ugandan Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Uganda is a state party.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Major General (rtd) Kahinda Otafiire
Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs
Bauman House, Plot 5 Parliament Avenue
His Excellency Julius Peter Moto
Uganda High Commission
Uganda House, 58–59 Trafalgar Square
London WC2N 5DX