Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2019 – Take Action for Stella Nyanzi

By | November 15, 2019 at 4:07 pm | No comments | News

Ugandan academic, writer and activist Dr. Stella Nyanzi is currently serving an 18-month sentence for ‘cyber harassment’, in relation to a poem she wrote on Facebook in September 2018 criticising Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni (and his mother). Dr. Nyanzi has served almost 11 months of her sentence.

Dr. Nyanzi has lodged an appeal against her conviction. The prosecution has also appealed against her acquittal on a charge of ‘offensive communication’, for which she was also originally charged. Both appeals were due to be heard on 10 October but were postponed as Dr. Nyanzi’s legal team protested the closed-door hearing of the appeal and cross-appeal. The case has now been re-allocated to another judge. In the meantime, Dr. Nyanzi remains in Luzira Women’s Prison, in Kampala, Uganda’s capital.

Nyanzi’s conviction under the Computer Misuse Act of 2011 is illustrative of the authorities’ increasing intolerance of criticism and takes place against a wider context of suppression of freedom of expression in Uganda, and in particular a crackdown on dissent online.

PEN believes Dr. Nyanzi’s imprisonment is a violation of her right to freedom of expression, as provided for under article 29 of the Ugandan Constitution, as well as under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Uganda is a state party. PEN calls on the Ugandan authorities to release her from prison immediately and unconditionally and quash her conviction.


Margie Orford writes to Stella Nyanzi

Dear Stella,

Before I had spent time in prison myself, I knew of so many who had their freedom taken away from them simply for speaking out. I could never have imagined what it would feel like when the doors shut and I was left alone in that prison cell. Suddenly I was completely alone and the way time passed changed. That time stays with me still. I wonder how you pass the time? Do you write? Are you able to read the letters that are sent to you? Do you hear about all the people who are standing with you and fighting for you? I keep thinking about you and the injustice of what you are facing. To have your freedom taken away for a poem is unconscionable, but this is not first time that words have threatened those in power.

When you receive this letter, I want you to know that every day there are people across the world raising your case, speaking your name. When they imprisoned you, they tried to silence you, but what they have done is spark energy within a global community who refuses to be silent. Your courage and defiance are more powerful than the authority of those that have imprisoned you. Your words travel further now than ever before.

“Teach the nation poetry.
Handcuffs cannot contain the potency of poems.
Arrest warrants cannot disappear memorized verses
Poetry can never be detained in gaol.”

These words will resonate with so many who, like us, have faced governments bent on repressing their people. Your writings cannot and will not be suppressed. We will make sure of it. Today, PEN Centres around the world are sharing your words and calling for your release.

I have faith that we will see you out of prison soon.

Margie Orford



Take Action: Share on Facebook, Twitter and other social media

Send appeal letters to the Ugandan authorities:

  • Expressing concern at the conviction and sentence imposed on Dr. Nyanzi, calling on them to release her immediately and unconditionally and overturn her conviction;
  • Calling on them to repeal or amend the Computer Misuse Act (2011), which has been used to clamp down on dissent, to ensure full conformity with Uganda’s freedom of expression obligations under international law;
  • Urging them to comply with their obligations to protect freedom of expression as enshrined in the Ugandan Constitution and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Uganda is a state party.

Send appeals to:

Mr. Mike Chibita
Director of Public Prosecutions Directorate of Public Prosecutions Workers House, Plot 1 Pilkington Road Kampala, Uganda

Major General (rtd) Kahinda Otafiire
Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Bauman House, Plot 5, Parliament Avenue P. O. Box 7183 Kampala, Uganda
Fax: +25641254829

Please copy your appeals to the Embassy of Uganda in your country. A list of embassies can be found here. We urge you to reach out to your Ministry of Foreign Affairs and diplomatic representatives in Uganda, calling on them to raise Dr. Nyanzi’s case in bilateral fora.

Please inform PEN International of any action you take and of any responses you receive.


PEN members are encouraged to:

  • Publish articles and opinion pieces in your national or local press highlighting the case of Dr. Stella Nyanzi and freedom of expression in Uganda;
  • Organise public events, press conferences and demonstrations;
  • Share information about Dr. Stella Nyanzi and your campaigning activities via social media using the hashtags #PushForStellaNyanzi, #FreeStellaNyanzi and #ImprisonedWriter

Social media

Please use the hashtag #ImprisonedWriter.

Suggested tweets:

  • On Day of the #ImprisonedWriter join PEN and take action for academic, writer and activist Dr. Stella Nyanzi;
  • I stand with #StellaNyanzi and #PENInternational on Day of the #ImprisonedWriter;
  • Drop the charges against #StellaNyanzi #ImprisonedWriter

Please let us know about your activities and send us a report about them by 15 December 2019 so that we can share them with other Centres.


Solidarity is a key component of our campaign. Consider adopting Dr. Stella Nyanzi as an Honorary Member of your Centre. Details of how to campaign for honorary members may be found in the Writers in Prison Committee Handbook, available here.

“Teach the nation poetry.
Handcuffs cannot contain the potency of poems.
Arrest warrants cannot disappear memorized verses
Poetry can never be detained in gaol.”

– Dr. Stella Nyanzi.

Dr. Nyanzi would welcome letters, cards and books from PEN members and supporters. If you would be interested in sending her something, please get in touch at:

Please also consider holding a solidarity event where you mention and draw attention to the case of Dr. Nyanzi.

“…for those of us whose articulations criticise the government and its actors, those of us who question the status quo, those of us who expose the numerous everyday violations of citizens’ rights, those of us who resist and defy the system, their spaces for freedom of expression are shutting down fast. Gags, censors, intimidation, fines, threats, arrests, beatings, detention, raids, confiscation of materials, bans of our works, are increasing vices that the government metes out against us.”

 Dr. Nyanzi, speaking to PEN International in 2017.


Dr. Nyanzi was charged in November 2018 with “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication” under sections 24 and 25 of the Computer Misuse Act, 2011; she was convicted of the first charge and acquitted of the second charge on 1 August 2019. She was sentenced the following day to 18 months in prison. As Dr. Nyanzi has already spent eleven months in prison, having been remanded into custody at her first trial hearing on 9 November 2018, she is set to serve out the remaining time. At her sentencing hearing on 2 August 2019, which Dr. Nyanzi attended via video link, she bared her breasts in protest and lamented the fact that the “offensive communication” charge was dropped, saying that she had wished to annoy the President.

Section 24 of the Computer Misuse Act makes it an offence to “mak[e] any request, suggestion or proposal which is obscene, lewd, lascivious or indecent”. Section 25 states:

“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 misdemeanour and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding twenty-four currency points (480,000) [around 130 USD] or imprisonment not exceeding one year or both.”

Both sections are vaguely worded and open to interpretation. The trial itself was marred by fair trial concerns: the American Bar Association, which monitored the trial, pointed to violations of the right to prepare a defence, and the abrupt closure of the defence case by the presiding magistrate.

Dr. Nyanzi was previously arrested and charged with the same offences in April 2017, also in connection with Facebook posts about President Museveni. According to her lawyer, this trial has been stayed pending the outcome of a petition launched in May 2017 by Dr. Nyanzi in Uganda’s Constitutional Court, challenging the validity of Uganda’s 1938 Mental Treatment Act. The petition was filed in response to the prosecution’s request for an investigation into her mental health.

In addition to attempts to force her to undergo a psychiatric investigation, Dr. Nyanzi has suffered a series of health problems while in detention; in late 2018, after her second arrest in November 2018, Dr. Nyanzi says she suffered a miscarriage in jail.

A medical anthropologist by training, Dr. Nyanzi’s scholarship lies at the intersections of culture, health, law, gender and sexualities. She was previously a research fellow at Makerere University’s Institute for Social Research, where she specialised in the study of sexuality in Africa, until the Institute terminated her contract in February 2019. In addition to publishing widely in the academia, she is an ardent writer on social media where she comments and debates about contemporary social-political occurrences, and she writes poetry, mainly on social media. She is an outspoken activist and a leading voice in the Ugandan women’s rights movement and campaigns for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex peoples. In 2017 she launched the #Pads4girlsUg Project, a campaign to raise money to buy and distribute sanitary pads for schoolgirls in Uganda.

Dr. Nyanzi is also a fierce, public critic of Uganda’s President Museveni. She is a practitioner of “radical rudeness,” a traditional Ugandan strategy for unsettling the powerful through the tactical use of public insult. Her use of language is often colourful and sometimes shocking: some of the messages she posted on Facebook imply that Uganda would have been better off if the president had died at birth and include strong, graphic descriptions of Museveni’s mother’s birth canal.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which oversees the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has made clear that the ‘mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties.’ Human rights bodies have also pointed out that Heads of State and public figures should tolerate a higher degree of criticism than ordinary citizens.

Violations of free expression in Uganda are rampant. Over the last year, media outlets deemed critical of the government have been investigated for allegedly breaching broadcasting standards, peaceful protest events have been cancelled, and journalists have been harassed while carrying out their work. Ugandan authorities have used colonial era laws such as criminal defamation to restrict dissent and have enacted new ones, such as the Computer Misuse Act of 2011, to clampdown on online criticism. PEN International opposes criminal defamation laws in all cases, and denounces the abuse of civil defamation laws to stifle free expression. Several recent measures to regulate social media have further restricted the space for online expression. A social media tax, passed in 2018, has reportedly led many Ugandans to abandon social media, and in August 2019, a week after Dr. Nyanzi’s conviction, the Uganda Communications Commission decided to charge ‘social media influencers’ a $20 fee and make them register with the state regulator.

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