Kampala- Suspended Makerere University research fellow Stella Nyanzi’s criticism of the First Lady in social media posts laced with graphic language provides a test case for the limits to which freedom of speech can be stretched, lawyers and academics said yesterday.
The prevailing opinion is that she should be celebrated rather than ridiculed even as the debate shifts to how a balance can be struck between upholding the inherent human right to freedom of speech, and protecting public decency.
Human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo told Sunday Monitor that Dr Nyanzi is a poet and scholar who needs to be acclaimed.
He said the public shouldn’t misunderstand her for being vulgar when she uses figurative language.
Citing Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Mr Opiyo said Dr Nyanzi has the right to freedom of expression and opinion, which includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
“However unconventional it may be, it is within her rights. If you have read Okot p’Bitek’s works, what is the difference between his works and that of Dr Stella Nyanzi? We should not call her vulgar but rather accept her the way she is,” Mr Opiyo added.
An order to summarily suspend Dr Nyanzi from Makerere University was issued on Friday by the board chairman, Mr Bruce Baraba Kabasa, the second such removal from office, though this time the authorities said the action was taken because she refused to heed warnings about her posts about the First Lady.
Another human rights lawyer, Mr Ladislaus Rwakafuzi, agreed with Mr Opiyo, observing that the academic has her own style of expressing herself.
On the suspension, Mr Rwakafuzi noted that universities like Makerere have lost their place in influencing public opinion.
“She looks out of place when she tries to put across what academics are supposed to do. If you go to most of these universities, they are not using their right to freedom to protect good governance,” he added.
Dr William Tayebwa, the head of Journalism and Communication at Makerere University, said Dr Nyanzi is a scholar of Queer Studies, whose form of expressing dissent is unknown in this part of the world.
“It is based on its shock value through explicit vulgar language and expression,” Dr Tayebwa said.
“It is true. Makerere does not understand her because of our cultural bondage. She is so appreciated in South Africa, for instance,” he added.
However, he said Dr Nyanzi should focus on the office of minister of Education and avoid getting too personal.
Mr Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, the team leader of Unwanted Witness, a civil society organisation with an active online presence, said every public official is not immune against criticisms.
“First of all, the judgment of using cyber space seems to suggest no public official has any immunity against attack,” Mr Ssebaggala said.
He added that Dr Nyanzi has the right to criticise the person of the First Lady and the minister of Education, but she ought to separate Ms Museveni, the individual.
Dr Nyanzi has not only criticised the First Lady, but also her former boss at Makerere University Institute of Social Research, Prof Mahmood Mamdani, whom she accused of suppresing her at work.
She has accused the Museveni regime of presiding over widespread corruption, human rights abuse, alleged extra-judicial killings, failing crucial public health care delivery, electoral fraud, misplaced government priorities and a deliberate impoverishment of Ugandans.
In the face of this unrelenting criticism, the government has been jolted into action.
Fr Simon Lokodo, the minister of Ethics and Integrity, told Sunday Monitor that the academic would be brought to book for attacking the First Lady.
“Dr Nyanzi has unfortunately gone overboard and she has destroyed her knowledge as a scholar and Ph.D holder. Instead of being constructive, she is being destructive and should learn how to control her tongue and not insult and defame,” Fr Lokodo said.
The minister added that Dr Nyanzi had abused her freedom of speech by insulting Ms Museveni.
The State minister of ICT, Ms Aida Nantaba, condemned Dr Nyanzi’s behaviour and said as the ministry in charge, they have engaged Uganda Communication Commission’s Mr Godfrey Mutambazi to take action.
Mr Nsaba Buturo, who chairs the parliamentary Committee on Ethics and Integrity, said the country’s legal framework is not sufficiently harmonised to deter members of the public from promoting immorality, which mainly affects children.
The former Ethics minister said that Dr Nyanzi was being “smart and clever by tapping into the public dissent and dressing her message of social immorality with issues of public concern.”
However, Ms Paula Turyahikayo, the chairperson of the parliamentary Committee on ICT, maintains that there are enough laws, including the Cyber Act, Computer Misuse Act and the Media Act, which should be able to address cases like that of Dr Nyanzi.