Uganda: Government must safeguard freedom of expression after arrest and attack

Dr. Stella Nyanzi seated in the dock during a court session.

This statement was originally published on Article 19 website on 18 April 2017.

ARTICLE 19 is concerned by the recent abduction, torture, arrest, and prosecution of a journalist and academic exercising their right to freedom of expression.

On 7 April 2017 Dr Stella Nyanzi, an academic, poet and social media user, was arrested and prosecuted under Sections 24 and 25 of the Computer Misuse Act 2011, allegedly for harassing and using indecent language against the president and the first family online.

Nyanzi has recently led a public campaign to collect and distribute sanitary pads to school girls, and alleged that the First Lady and Minister of Education, Janet Museveni, had failed to keep the promise to improve access to sanitary products over the last 31 years of National Resistance Movement (NRM) leadership.

A day later, Nation Television (NTV) Uganda journalist, Gertrude Uwitware, was abducted and tortured after publishing a blog post defending Nyanzi. 

The use of this law against the academic threatens to limit artistic freedom and public debate on an important issue like women and girls’ reproductive health and access to education”, said Henry Maina, Director of ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa.,”

The Ugandan government must respect the Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression under Article 29. The arrest and attack also show a failure to uphold promises made by the government to safeguard freedom of expression during the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process,” said Maina.

The broadly phrased and vague Computer Misuse Act criminalises obscenity and indecency without defining these concepts. This is in contradiction to the Ugandan government’s freedom of expression obligations, as obscenity is not a form of expression that may be restricted under international law. Any restrictions on freedom of expression for the protection of public morals must be based on a narrow understanding of what ‘public morals’ means.

Additionally, the law uses three terms, ‘disturb the quiet’, ‘with no purpose of legitimate communication’ and ‘offensive communications’, which are too broad and vague to satisfy the three part test on what constitutes an acceptable limit on free expression under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Uganda is a signatory.

We urge the Ugandan Government to ensure that it fulfils its obligations to meet international freedom of expression standards, as well as to protect journalists from torture, attacks and intimidation and investigate the attack on Gertrude Uwitware, in line with its obligations under the UN Convention against Torture.

We also urge the amendment of Sections 24 and 25 of the Computer Misuse Act 2011 in order to bring it into line with international standards on the protection of free expression.

For more information and arranging media interviews, please contact Ms Catherine Anite, Senior Programme Officer, Media, Protection and Safety Officer, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa at Catherine@article19.org or call on +254 727 862230

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Editorial notes:

The sections of the Computer Misuse Act provide as follows:

24. Cyber harassment. (1) A person who commits cyber harassment is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding seventy two currency points or imprisonment not exceeding three years or both.

(2) For purposes of this section cyber harassment is the use of a computer for any of the following purposes—

(a) making any request, suggestion or proposal which is obscene, lewd, lascivious or indecent;

(b) threatening to inflict injury or physical harm to the person or property of any person; or

(c) knowingly permits any electronic communications device to be used for any of the purposes mentioned in this section.

25. Offensive communication. Any person who wilfully and repeatedly uses electronic communication to disturb or attempts to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person with no purpose of legitimate communication whether or not a conversation ensues commits a misdemeanor and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding twenty four currency points or imprisonment not exceeding one year or both.

HRNJ-UG Admin

Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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