Ugandan Professor Charged for "Insulting" the President on Facebook

University lecturer and activist Doctor Stella Nyanzi
University lecturer and activist Dr Stella Nyanzi (left) attends court to face charges of cyber-harassment and offensive communication, in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, on April 10. GAEL GRILHOT /Getty Images

A Ugandan academic has been charged with "cyber harassment" and "offensive communication" for allegedly insulting the country's President Yoweri Museveni and his wife, Janet Museveni, on Facebook.

Stella Nyanzi, research fellow at the Uganda's Makerere University, was arrested on April 7 after a series of posts on the social network criticizing Museveni and the first lady, who is also the minister of education, for backtracking on a promise made during the electoral campaign in 2016 to supply free sanitary pads to schoolgirls.

The project was seen as a way to incentivize the education of girls, as studies have documented numerous cases of girls in Uganda who drop out of school due to shame if they cannot afford sanitary pads during their menstruation cycle.

However, Janet Museveni said in February the government did not have "the funding for this in our budget yet."

The decision to scrap the project angered Nyanzi, a staunch critic of the Ugandan government and President Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.

Nyanzi launched a crowdfunding campaign to buy sanitary pads for schoolgirls. She then wrote several Facebook posts about the Ugandan leader and the first lady, calling the president a "pair of buttocks" and the first lady "foolish."

Upon her arrest, an unnamed police official told Africa News website: "Dr Stella knew that she has been investigated by CID (Criminal Investigation Division) headquarters. She kept posting issues, fighting battles on social media which we think has not served our interest or her interest."

Nyanzi's arrest has been slammed as a crackdown on freedom of speech, with social media users calling for her release under the hashtag #FreeDrStellaNyanzi.

Arrested for being the voice of the voiceless. Cry beloved Africa😔 #FreeDrStellanyanzi

— Mosebjadi (@VillageQueeen) April 9, 2017

Amnesty International called the case a "politically-motivated prosecution" and urged the government to release Nyanzi unconditionally.

Nyanzi appeared in court on Monday. The prosecution on Monday claimed she "was insane" and should be "placed under treatment" under the country's Mental Treatment Act. Nyanzi was remanded in custody pending a bail hearing, AFP reported.

Phil Clark, Reader in Comparative and International Politics with reference to Africa at SOAS University in London, believes Nyanzi's case highlights growing tensions between the government and civil society in Uganda, particularly on issues concerning women's rights and homosexuality, which is illegal in the country .

"Uganda allows much greater freedom of expression than most of its neighbors but the government is particularly thin-skinned on sexuality issues," he told Newsweek.

"Over the last two years, local NGOs working on these issues have been shut down and had their funding blocked. Academics and journalists who have criticized the government for its policies on LGBT and women's rights have been harassed or arrested," Clark added.

Uganda has been condemned for its record on freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The country ranked 102 out of 180 in the 2016 Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders. The organization said "acts of intimidation and violence against journalists are an almost daily occurrence in Uganda."

Expressing similar fears, Angela Quintal, ‎Africa Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Newsweek that "there have been several cases in Uganda that have raised concerns about the deteriorating climate for media freedom."

The latest example of harassment against a member of the the press was the abduction of Gertrude Tumusiime Uwitware on April 8, a journalist for Uganda's NTV station, who was allegedly kidnapped and interrogated after defending Nyanzi in a Facebook post.

"She [Uwitware] was eventually released and opened a case with local police. She too was threatened over her Facebook posts," Quintal says. However, she adds, there have been at least three cases of conviction involving people "who have attacked journalists."

The High Commission of Uganda in London has not replied to a request for a comment on the claims and Nyanzi's case.

In an interview with a local TV station earlier in April, Janet Museveni said she had forgiven Nyanzi's criticism.

"I still don't know what kind of wrong I committed to deserve that kind of language and the names she chose to call me, and all that. I just wanted to tell people that I honestly forgave that lady," the first lady was quoted as saying. "Because I don't understand how an educationist can use that language to say anything about anybody."