ACME statement – Don’t criminalise Stella Nyanzi’s language

The African Centre for Media Excellence condemns the move by the state to criminalise recent expression by Dr Stella Nyanzi of Makerere University.

We understand that on Monday, 10 April 2017, she was charged with “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication”, which are both said to be contrary to sections 24 and 25 of the Computer Misuse Act 2011.

“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,” said Dr Peter G. Mwesige, ACME’s executive director.

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 Dr Mwesige.

“Also, that expression extends to all manner of ideas, opinions, and information, including those that the majority may find offensive or even illegitimate.”

As Justice Joseph Mulenga argued in his 2004 lead judgement in the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision on the Penal Code provision on false news, “…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.”

Similarly, we strongly believe that Dr 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.

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.

ACME also condemns in the strongest terms possible actions of unknown individuals who over the weekend reportedly kidnapped NTV journalist Gertrude Tumusiime Uwitware.

“Just like the arrest of Dr Nyanzi, this development threatens to have a chilling effect on the exercise of free expression,” said Dr Mwesige.

We call upon the police to investigate this matter thoroughly and bring the authors of this criminality to book.

As our Supreme Court has said, “the protection of the right to freedom of expression is of great significance to democracy. It is the bedrock of democratic governance.”


ABOUT AFRICAN CENTRE FOR MEDIA EXCELLENCE: ACME is a Kampala-based independent, non-profit professional organisation committed to helping African journalists seek and achieve professional excellence. The organisation fulfils its mandate through refresher training for mid-career journalists; media literacy training for civil society organisations, corporate companies and others; media research; free expression advocacy; and media monitoring.

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