CONVICTED: Stella Nyanzi’s 305 days of Sacrificing for Internet Freedom

It is now approximately 305 days since former Makerere University researcher Dr. Stella Nyanzi was detention at Luzira prison for a Facebook post that was deemed offensive to the person of President Yoweri Museveni. It is the first cyber criminal offence in Uganda to undergo full trial for allegedly harassing the president online.

Her detention, subsequent trial and judgement day goes down in history of Uganda’s repressive digital rights landscape, as the state mounts flagrant attack on free speech online using the constitutional court contested section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act, 2011. Tens of Ugandans have either been incarcerated or interrogated at police’s Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID), Kibuli on charges of cyber harassment and Offensive Communication, contrary to section 25 of the Act. In a country where many people under the same charge have been granted bail after spending a couple of days in prison and others sought presidential pardon, Stella Nyanzi’s sacrifice for free expression online is remarkable.   

Since 2015, over 60% of Ugandans arrested for offensive communication have allegedly “annoyed” the president, creating a strong impression that the law is  a tool used to clampdown whoever challenges president Museveni online.  

Feminist and Poetess Nyanzi is also renown for her social media activism regarding social justice. She was first arrested in March 2017 under the same charge for purportedly referring to Museveni as a “pair of buttocks,” and later granted bail in poor health condition after spending 33days in jail.

Photo By Nicholas Bamulanzeki

But before the file could be closed, Nyanzi was re-arrested over another Facebook post –under same law and charge (cyber harassment and offensive communication).

This time she vehemently declined bail offers choosing sacrifice for many internet users previously arrested and those who continue to be arrested under cyber harassment and offensive communication charges. The reason why Nyanzi wanted this trial to go on-no–matter -the -outcome was informed by state’s continued charging of several of its social media critics under various sections of the Computer Misuse Act, 2011. 

Sacrificing her freedom for the wider internet community in Uganda, at one point the state made feeble attempts to have Nyanzi be subjected to mental examination under the colonial 1938 Mental Treatment Act, which was blocked by the Constitutional Court.

The trial has moved to different courts, early this week, her case was at the High Court for review after Nyanzi complained about the “bias” tendency exhibited by Grade 1 Magistrate Gladys Kamasanyu, a claim rejected by justice Jane Frances Abodo.

Indeed Nyanzi’s fears about Magistrate Kamasanyu played out well today as the Magistrate convicted her for cyber harassment with a sentence scheduled for tomorrow.