On April 7, 2017, Stella Nyanzi, a research fellow at Makerere University in Uganda and prominent human rights activist, was arrested and charged with cyber harassment and offensive communications based on Facebook posts criticizing Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
Dr. Nyanzi is an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights and women’s rights in Uganda, and has developed a large social media following for her public criticisms of the country’s president. After posting a Facebook message on February 15, criticizing Janet Museveni, the country’s Education Minister and wife of the president, Dr. Nyanzi reportedly began to experience a series of reprisals. These include being summoned by law enforcement authorities for questioning; being prevented from traveling to Amsterdam for an academic conference, having her passport and boarding passes confiscated, and being placed on a “no-fly” list; and being suspended from her position at Makerere University on March 31. Dr. Nyanzi has also reported on Facebook that, on April 3, her sister’s car was followed, and her home was raided by armed men.
According to the charging document issued by the Ugandan police, the basis for Dr. Nyanzi’s arrest was a January 28 Facebook posting, in which she referred to President Museveni as “a pair of buttocks.” She is charged with Cyber Harassment C/S 24 (1) (2) (a), and Offensive Communication C/S 25, under Uganda’s Computer Misuse Act of 2011, charges which carry potential sentences of three years and one year in prison, respectively. In addition, the prosecutor reportedly filed an application with the court to have Dr. Nyanzi committed to a psychiatric institution, in order for doctors to “determine” her state of mental health.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention, arrest and related proceedings, professional suspension, and restriction on the travel of a scholar, in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression — conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Uganda is a party. Arrest, prosecution, professional retaliation, and travel restrictions intended to limit academics’ expression undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally. State and university authorities have a responsibility to protect members of higher education communities and the peaceful exercise of the rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression, and to comply with international human rights standards relating to due process and fair trial.