Uganda: Drop charges against academic

17 May 2017 – PEN International welcomes the news that prominent feminist academic and activist Dr. Stella Nyanzi was released on bail on 10 May, but continues to call for the charges against her to be dropped immediately and unconditionally, as she should never have been arrested in the first place. Dr. Nyanzi was arrested on 7 April 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 detained for 33 days before she was granted bail. Dr. Nyanzi faces her next court hearing on 25 May. PEN International believes Dr. Nyanzi has been charged for peacefully expressing her views and calls on the Ugandan authorities to uphold freedom of expression and allow Dr. Nyanzi to continue her activism unabated by dropping the charges against her.

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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 as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

Please write to:

Mr. Mike Chibita
Director of Public Prosecutions
Directorate of Public Prosecutions
Workers House, Plot 1 Pilkington Road
Kampala, Uganda
mike.chibita [at] dpp.go [dot] ug

Major General (rtd) Kahinda Otafiire
Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs
Bauman House, Plot 5, Parliament Avenue
P. O. Box 7183
Kampala, Uganda
Fax: +25641254829
Email: info [at] justice.go [dot] ug

Please copy your appeals to the Embassy of Uganda in your country.  A list of embassies can be found here

If you would like to send a message of support to Dr. Nyanzi please address them to lianna.merner [at] pen-international [dot] org

***Please contact PEN International if sending appeals after 25 May 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 7 April 2017 and charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication under the Computer Misuse Act of 2011 on 10 April. 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, Dr. Nyanzi was denied bail and the prosecution 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. After 33 days in prison, her bail application was finally heard and approved on 10 May. Reports indicated Dr. Nyanzi was unwell and she was carried into court for the hearing on 10 May. Dr. Nyanzi posted on her Facebook page that she had become unwell in prison but was on medication to treat her illnesses. Though she has been released on bail, Dr. Nyanzi still has to contend with the application for a mental health examination as well as the charges of cyber harassment and computer misuse. Dr. Nyanzi returns to court on 25 May, 2017.

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. In particular, she had criticised the government’s failure to fulfil 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 19 March. She was arrested on 7 April 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 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.

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.

Many human rights organisations, academics and writers have campaigned on behalf of Dr. Nyanzi, including PEN South Africa who launched a petition in support of the academic. PEN International featured Dr. Nyanzi as an Empty Chair at a panel event at the NGO Forum of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in early May. Upon her release, Dr. Nyanzi wrote on her Facebook page:

What a delight to be out of the ugly belly of the state’s brutality! Luzira Women’s Prison will forever hold a dear place in my heart. I made friends with prisoners… I am glad to be home with family and friends who love me… Freedom smells lovely when among loved ones. My lawyers and legal team kept my winning spirit up. My sureties restored my hope in humanity. All my visitors in prison inspired me not to give up. The public press media and the social media fraternities kept the fire burning. Human rights activists, feminists, queers, journalists, cartoonists, comedians, musicians, artists, scholars, researchers, foreign missions, and all my allies who stood tall and proud in solidarity with me, I thank you.’

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.