Uganda: Drop charges against academic and writer Stella Nyanzi


28 April 2017-

The charges against prominent Ugandan academic, writer and activist Dr. Stella Nyanzi, and her continued detention are an affront to freedom of expression, PEN International and PEN Uganda said today. The organisations call for her immediate release and for the charges against her to be dropped, as she appears to have been targeted for exercising her right to freedom of expression, and urge the Ugandan government to restore its public commitment to free speech.

Dr. Nyanzi, who often uses provocative language and metaphor in her writings, was arrested on 7 April and charged on 10 April with insulting the president on her social media accounts and violating his right to privacy under the Computer Misuse Act of 2011. 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 10 April at Buganda Road Magistrate’s Court, Dr. Nyanzi was denied bail and the State Attorney called for an investigation into her mental health. When Dr. Nyanzi appeared in court again on 25 April, her bail application was postponed until 10 May. On 26 April the High Court, which reviewed a request submitted by her lawyers, ruled that the magistrate’s court has the power to consider the application for a mental examination, but that Dr. Nyanzi has a right to apply for bail. Unless the next hearing date is brought forward, Dr. Nyanzi will stay in prison for another two weeks before her bail application can be heard.

“This deliberate attempt by the state to keep her away from her work and her family is unfortunate,” observed Dr. Danson Kahyana, President, PEN Uganda. “Postponement of bail applications is one of the tactics the Ugandan government uses to ensure that its critics stay longer in prison.”

In the months leading 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 and Sports. In particular she had criticized the government’s failure to fulfil President Museveni’s 2016 election campaign promise to provide sanitary pads to all schoolgirls, due to lack of money. 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 19 March. She was arrested on 7 April in Kampala after attending a talk at the Rotary Club about the campaign.

“Stella Nyanzi’s detention is outrageous. The use of psychiatric assessment of political dissidents is an old tradition that dishonours the medical profession and governments that practise them,” said Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. “Dr. Nyanzi is an academic raising an issue of pressing importance in Uganda. Instead of addressing legitimate concerns she has raised about the state’s failure to provide sanitary pads to poor school students, the state has responded by trying to silence the messenger. The Ugandan state should release Dr. Nyanzi immediately.”

According to the Guardian, referencing a Facebook post of an activist who attended the hearing on 10 April, 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.”

In 2016 freedom of expression violations during and after the general election were rampant and in 2017 Reporters Without Borders downgraded Uganda in its World Press Freedom Index to 112 from 102 the previous year. The right of free speech is enshrined in Uganda’s constitution and Uganda has committed to uphold freedom of expression in other international conventions such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  As a State Party to the ICCPR, Uganda has the obligation to protect freedom of expression, including speech which some may find offensive.

PEN calls on the Ugandan authorities to

  • Immediately and unconditionally release Dr Nyanzi;
  • Drop the charges against her;
  • Comply with their obligations to protect freedom of expression

For further information, please contact Lianna Merner, 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