Ugandan university lecturer and activist Dr Stella Nyanzi has been arrested on charges of 'cyber harassment' and 'offensive communication' against the office of the president, a move that has been condemned by rights group Amnesty International and civil society groups.
Nyanzi referred to President Yoweri Museveni as a “pair of buttocks” in a recent Facebook post. The comment has been deemed obscene and in contravention of the Computer Misuse Act of 2011.
The academic and single mother of three was arrested on 7 April. She pleaded not guilty in court last week and was remanded in custody until 25 April.
“Uganda is increasingly becoming hostile to citizens who use online platforms such as social media to criticise the government,” said Wairagala Wakabi, the executive director at the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa, or CIPESA.
Shrinking traditional civic space
“With the shrinking of traditional civic space, many Ugandans are taking to online activism and the government will increasingly follow them there,” Wakabi warned.
“Evidently, governments that fear citizens organising and which stifle freedom of expression, of assembly and of the media in the offline domain will not be comfortable when citizens freely use the internet,” said Wakabi.
Nyanzi pleaded not guilty during her court appearance and has refused to undergo medical tests to ascertain her state of mind in accordance with a request from the prosecution.
At the end of March, Nyanzi was the subject of a letter calling for her suspension from Makerere University by Bruce Kabasa, the university appointments board chairman.
Criticising the First Lady
Kabasa directed that the academic be suspended for a separate Facebook post criticising Janet Museveni, the president’s wife and minister of education and sports, for failing to provide sanitary pads for girls in schools as was pledged by her husband during his presidential re-election campaign.
In the letter, Nyanzi was accused of continued use of social media that violates Section 5.7.7 of the Makerere University Human Resource Manual 2009, which lists offences that constitute misconduct, including use of abusive or insulting language.
“It’s particularly regrettable that Dr Nyanzi has made it a habit to insult, dehumanise and castigate the line minister of education and sports under whose docket Makerere University’s supervision falls, wrote Kabasa.
Nyanzi’s lawyer, Isaac Ssekamadde, responded in a letter to the university saying the disciplinary proceedings were inconsistent with the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution of Uganda.
Local, regional and international organisations, including Amnesty International, have condemned the actions of the Ugandan government in charging Nyanzi.
Freedom of expression
“The authorities must immediately revoke the Computer Misuse Act, and respect, protect, promote and fulfil the right to freedom of expression of all Ugandans,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
Public officials should tolerate more criticism than private individuals. Laws that have the intention or effect of prohibiting insulting the head of state or public officials are disproportionate, unnecessary and have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, a statement from Amnesty International said.
Juliet Nanfuka, the communication officer at CIPESA, said often relatively new laws are used by African governments as blanket instruments to limit freedom of expression.
“A similarity in these laws is the use of vague language that can be used, and indeed has been used, to muzzle opinion of the media, social media users, bloggers and other independent actors that promote freedom of expression and increased state transparency,” said Nanfuka.
She cited the Tanzania Cybercrimes Act of 2015 set out to criminalise offences related to computer systems and information communication technologies but which have also been used to stifle online expression.
Section 29 of the Kenya Information and Communications Act of 2013 has also been used to charge social media users for the improper use of a telecommunication system, while Section 25 of the Uganda Computer Misuse Act bears similar language, she said.
“We encourage states to support the free flow of information and the use of the internet as a tool of engagement with citizens,” said Nanfuka.
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