The African Centre for Media Excellence (Acme), an independent body committed to helping journalists, has condemned the move by the state to criminalise recent social media postings by Makerere University research fellow, Dr Stella Nyanzi.
Dr Nyanzi was last week arrested and later charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication, contrary to sections 24 and 25 of the Computer Misuse Act 2011. She was particularly charged for calling President Yoweri Museveni a “pair of buttocks” in a Facebook post of January 28, 2017. She was remanded to Luzira prison for two weeks by Buganda Road court magistrate James Ereemye Mawanda.
A statement from Acme says prosecuting Nyanzi over her social media posts contravenes freedom of speech.
“While we recognise that the colourful language that Dr Nyanzi sometimes uses could in some cases go against certain community standards and offend sections of the population, we call upon the authorities to take a broader view of protected speech,” the statement quotes Dr Peter G Mwesige, Acme’s executive director as saying.
It adds that as a champion of journalistic excellence, Acme promotes professional journalism that tends to privilege “acceptable” language and speech.
“However, we are always mindful that the right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by our Constitution, is in fact for all citizens not just (professional) journalists,” said Mwesige.
“Also, that expression extends to all manner of ideas, opinions, and information, including those that the majority may find offensive or even illegitimate.”
The statement also quotes Justice Joseph Mulenga’s argument in his 2004 lead judgment in the Supreme court’s unanimous decision on the Penal Code provision on false news.
He said: “…it is evident that the right to freedom of expression extends to holding, receiving and imparting all forms of opinions, ideas and information. It is not confined to categories, such as correct opinions, sound ideas or truthful information.
Subject to the limitation under Article 43, a person’s expression or statement is not precluded from the constitutional protection simply because it is thought by another or others to be false, erroneous, controversial or unpleasant. Everyone is free to express his or her views. Indeed, the protection is most relevant and required where a person’s views are opposed or objected to by society or any part thereof, as ‘false’ or ‘wrong.’”
Justice Mulenga stressed that “applying the constitutional protection to false expressions is not to ‘uphold falsity’… The purpose is to avoid the greater danger of ‘smothering alternative views’ of fact or opinion.”
Mwesige, therefore, says Nyanzi’s speech would be protected under this yardstick “if we replaced falsity with vulgarity, obscenity or whatever other label her critics have chosen to describe her language.”
He argues that in any case, the harassment that she has been accused of engaging in via the computer would perhaps have made sense if the target of her speech were some powerless citizen and not the most powerful person in the land.
The statement also condemns actions of unknown individuals who, over the weekend, reportedly kidnapped NTV journalist Gertrude Tumusiime Uwitware.
On Tuesday, Lynne Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International's regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes region also called on government to drop all charges and unconditionally release Nyanzi.
"Arresting (Dr Stella) Nyanzi simply for criticising the president and his wife serves no legitimate purpose. The state should stop wasting resources on pointless and politically-motivated prosecutions, immediately drop all charges against her and release her unconditionally," she said.
"The authorities must also immediately revoke the Computer Misuse Act, and respect, protect, promote and fulfill the right to freedom of expression of all Ugandans."