PEN South Africa condemns sentencing of Dr Stella Nyanzi

06 Aug 2019
PEN South Africa condemns sentencing of Dr Stella Nyanzi

On the eve of Women’s Day 2019, PEN South Africa is issuing a statement condemning in the strongest terms the recent sentencing of prominent Ugandan academic, feminist and LGBTI+ campaigner, Dr. Stella Nyanzi to 18 months in prison.

She was found guilty of cyber harassment on Friday, 3 August 2019 for a series of Facebook posts criticising President Yoweri Museveni.

Nyanzi was arrested on the same charges in 2017, against which PEN SA and our colleagues successfully campaigned, leading to her release.

On 2 November 2018 Nyanzi was rearrested and charged with “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication.” The charges were based on messages she had posted on Facebook, criticising Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.

A fierce, public critic of President Museveni, Nyanzi is known to be a practitioner of “radical rudeness,” a traditional Ugandan strategy for unsettling the powerful through the tactical use of public insult. Her use of language is regarded as often colourful and sometimes shocking: some of the messages she allegedly posted on Facebook imply that Uganda would have been better off if the president had died at birth and include strong, graphic descriptions of Museveni’s mother’s birth canal.

At her first trial hearing on 9 November 2018, Nyanzi was remanded in custody and has remained there ever since. She is now expected to serve a further nine months in order to fulfil her 18-month term.

Nyanzi has suffered a series of health problems whilst in detention: in 2017, after she was first placed in Luzira Women’s Prison, the authorities tried to force her to undergo a psychiatric examination; around the same time, she also contracted malaria (prisoners were not allowed mosquito nets); in late 2018, after her second arrest, Nyanzi suffered a miscarriage in jail, according to her.

Along with PEN International and PEN Uganda, PEN SA believes 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 again now for Nyanzi’s immediate release and for all the charges against her to be dropped.

Commenting on Nyanzi’s case, Danson Kahyana, president of PEN Uganda, said: “Freedom of expression is fundamental to the functioning of every democracy; for this reason, a person’s views – however radical they are – should call for dialogue and debate rather than demonization and incarceration in a true democracy.”

Violations of free expression in Uganda are rampant. Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 Press Freedom Index downgraded the country, ranking it 117 out of 180 countries (having previously ranked it 112 in 2017 and 102 in 2016). In a 2017 interview, Dr. Nyanzi told PEN International:

“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.”

We, along with our colleagues at 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.