Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a former lecturer and researcher at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, has been sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for a series of online comments made about the long-serving President Yoweri Museveni.
The sentence was handed to Dr. Nyanzi via livestream from Luzira Prison, where she has been since her arrest in November 2018 for posting a poem on Facebook, which was critical of President Museveni. The poem accused him of corroding “all morality and professionalism out of our public institutions” as well as containing several explicit statements referring to her wish that he had died at birth.
Gladys Kamasanyu, a Magistrate presiding over the case, said, “the use of obscenity cannot be justified in any society… it didn’t matter who the post was referring to.” The court subsequently found Dr. Nyanzi guilty of “cyber harassment” under the Computer Misuse Act 2011 and has sentenced her to a further nine months in prison on top of the nine months she has already served.
Amnesty International’s Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, Joan Nyanyuki, stated that Dr. Nyanzi “has been criminalized solely for her creative flair of using metaphors and what may be considered insulting language to criticize President Museveni’s leadership.” She added, “public officials, including those exercising the highest political authority, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.”
The existence of the Computer Misuse Act indeed raises pertinent questions as to whether freedom of speech and expression exist in Uganda. Although the court said that it did not matter who the statements were aimed at, it was clear that this was a crucial factor in determining the severity of the crime. Freedom House, a non-profit organization that examines political and social freedoms globally, has labeled Uganda’s freedom on the internet as “partly free.” While there are not a plethora of obstacles to internet access, President Museveni has facilitated a crackdown on social media censorship and on general content that is critical to his rule. Critical content has increased since the Ugandan Parliament passed a law which permits presidential candidates over the age of 75 to stand for election – meaning that Museveni, who is 74, will be able to be re-elected in 2021.
This most recent example involving Dr. Nyanzi highlights Museveni’s slide to authoritarianism and shows that the Ugandan Constitution does not actually protect citizens from exercising their right to speak out against the government.