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A Ugandan Activist Was Arrested For Criticising The First Lady. Here's Everything You Need To Know about #FreeStellaNyanzi.

The government is looking for ways to extend traditional methods of intimidation to online speech, to control a space they have no ability to control.

11/04/2017 03:58 SAST | Updated 11/04/2017 06:43 SAST
James Akena/ Reuters
Ugandan Academic Stella Nyanzi

Ugandan social media has for a month now been awash with conversations about Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a research fellow at Makerere University and her campaign to distribute pads and sanitary towels to school-going girls in need. After a series of Facebook posts criticising the minister of education, also wife to President Yoweri Museveni, Nyanzi has become a target of state repression. At the time of curating this round-up, she had been in police custody since the evening of April 7. The detention led to a new hashtag, #FreeStellaNyanzi, which is trending in Uganda and South Africa among other countries. Below, we give you an overview of the news coverage and commentary on the #Pads4girlsUg campaign and #FreeStellaNyanzi. Our round up starts from April 5, two days before Nyanzi's arrest.

After years of ignoring Nyanzi's growing influence on the public stage in Uganda, Charles Onyango Obbo, a veteran journalist, commentator and author finally wrote about her on April 5 in his Ear to the Ground column. Obbo makes an argument for social media as the new platform to challenge Museveni's autocracy. He argues that the Museveni House is unable to deal with the style and content of the Nyanzi critique and campaign.

A Baker Batte Lule story in The Observer (Uganda), published on the same day as Obbo's covers the suspension of Nyanzi from Makerere. The story citing unnamed sources from the university appointments board alleges that the suspension was done illegally without following due process. A day later, The Observer posted another story by the same author, this time providing details of the sanitary pads campaign. Lule informs readers of the context that gave rise to the campaign, how it is organised and how it goes about the selection of schools to distribute pads at.

Daily Monitor's Damali Mukhaye on her part covers the response to the Makerere 'suspension' of Nyanzi by her legal team. She quotes Nyanzi's lawyer Isaac Ssemakadde's letter to Makerere in which he writes:

By attempting to suppress our client's freedom of expression irrationally and unfairly through the impugned citation of an unauthorised Human Resources Manual and unjustified warnings and suspension, the decision by the Appointment Board, the university has demonstrably failed to appreciate not only the importance of Dr Nyanzi's right of freedom of expression but also her rights to equal protection [under] the law.

In his weekly column, a second in a row on the Nyanzi saga, Daniel Kalinaki turns the gaze to Mrs. Janet Museveni. He teases out the complexity of Mrs. Museveni's dilemma as a Minister of Education and wife to the country's president. In the end he concludes that it is too late in the day for Mrs. Museveni to do anything about the deterioration of education during her husband's reign as President.

I think we must agree that the real vulgar thing here is that this scenario happens at all.

In The Monitor Commentary pages, Atuki Turner argues in favour of Nyanzi's campaign in an article posted on April 7. While the headline to the article is misleading in its describing Stella Nyanzi as 'vulgar', the article itself says the opposite:

We need to take a moment to ask ourselves who or what is really vulgar here. Is it Stella Nyanzi speaking profanities or is it the situation of the hundreds of girls, who have been shamed, teased, ridiculed, laughed at, until they've cowered with embarrassment or run out of class in tears, or stayed at home in shame, because of their menstrual periods? I think we must agree that the real vulgar thing here is that this scenario happens at all.

Edris Kiggundu of The Observer (Uganda) on his part, retells the proceedings of a confidential meeting held at State House that led to Janet Museveni's media and public relations strategy in handling Nyanzi's onslaught. Kiggundu's story brings to light the role of NTV Uganda in enabling the Musevenis to tell their story, in a way that has seen some quarters accuse the television station, especially its news manager and the journalist that interviewed the Minister of Education, of bias and being compromised.

The Daily Monitor on Saturday April 8 carried this report, one of the first news items on Nyanzi's abduction. Mr. Emilian Kayima, the police spokesperson is quoted as having said that Nyanzi was 'arrested over two counts of cyber harassment contrary to Section 24 of the Computer Misuse Act of 2011 and Offensive Communication Section 25 of the same law.'

The Independent magazine posted a summary of social media coverage of the events, up to the point of arrest, including a narrative of what happened the evening of the abduction at the Rotary Club event. More non-Ugandan news channels picked interest in the #FreeStellaNyanzi story. One of these ENCA.com, quotes journalist and activist Rosebell Kagumire who says:

I think the government are looking for ways to extend traditional methods of intimidation to online speech. They are trying to control a space they have no ability to control. South Africa based Times Live posted the same story as ENCA.com.

Janet Museveni used her Facebook page, to share the video of her controversial interview with an NTV journalist, in which she allegedly forgave Nyanzi.

The government owned New Vision only picked interest in the story after the Police announced that they had arrested Nyanzi and would charge her in court on Monday. While the 'traditional' media, through their print and online outlets have tried to keep up to date with the evolving nature of the Stella Nyanzi struggle against the Musevenis and their misrule, social media sites Twitter and Facebook have been timelier in delivering the news and commentary. Stella Nyanzi's own Facebook page, until she was abducted, was the central platform where everything unfolded.

Janet Museveni used her Facebook page, to share the video of her controversial interview with an NTV journalist, in which she allegedly forgave Nyanzi. The thread of comments on the video, including Nyanzi's own, capture the national mood on the matter. The #Pads4girlsUg team also has a Facebook page through which they share updates of the campaign, including photos and videos.

On Twitter, several Ugandan news and activist personalities have been following the story keenly. Some of these are @Elirri (journalist at Daily Monitor), @Natabaalo (journalist at African Centre for Media Excellence), @Uwitware (television journalist who has been threatened with death for her coverage of the saga and was kidnapped by 'unknown' people for over 12 hours), @ShawnMubiru (a political and civil rights activist), @namlyd (data journalist and expert), and @nickopiyo (civil rights lawyer with a leading NGO) among others.