On January 16, 2020, the currently incarcerated academic, writer and rights activist Dr. Stella Nyanzi was awarded the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression. The Ugandan feminist has been in detention for the past 18 months after she was convicted over cyber harassment against Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni.
Jennifer Clement, PEN International president said, “Stella Nyanzi has been deemed a criminal by the Ugandan authorities because she has criticised those at the highest echelons of power; though her words might be colourful and shocking to some, this is not enough to justify the imposition of penalties, and public officials should tolerate a higher degree of criticism than ordinary citizens”.
“At PEN we believe unshakeably in the need for writers to be able to criticise, parody, and mock at the highest levels. This award recognises the work she has done for women, civil society, and in the defence of free expression. We will continue to amplify her voice until she is released,” Clement noted.
Dr. Nyanzi acknowledged the award and wrote an award speech that has now gone viral: “It is a great honour for me to write this award speech, although I am writing while seated on the floor of Ward Two at Luzira Women Prison – the apex maximun security facility for women imprisoned in Uganda. It is 02:16 am here. The mosquitoes fly and sing with such liberty”.
“The lice and bedbugs bite deeply. Most of my prison wardmates are deep asleep in their prison uniforms. Some are nude. Some snore. Some fart. Two women hold the beads of their rosaries and whisper their prayers to God. Tonight, there are seventy two women prisoners in this overly congested prison ward. We have only five beds in the entire ward. Three ward leaders, one foreigner, and one long termer occupy the beds. The rest of us squeeze our bodies on the floor”.
“Over the past fourteen months, I have honed the skill of writing in the night in this prison. I refuse to stop writing. For self-preservation, I have insisted on writing most nights while other prisoners sleep,” Dr Nyanzi wrote.
— pamberi ne hondo (@mzeemushaandja) January 17, 2020
Each year the award is given to writers and journalists around the world in recognition of their significant contribution to freedom of expression despite the danger to their own lives.
Magistrate Glady Kamasanyu, while giving her judgement on Dr. Nyanzi’s case said that “the alleged poem written by you Nyanzi was obscene and corrupts the mind of the young generation.”
Danson Kahyana, President of PEN Uganda, who will be accepting the award on Dr. Nyanzi’s behalf, said:
“Dr Stella Nyanzi’s winning of the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Freedom of Expression Award is good news not only to her, but to all freedom of expression defenders in Uganda and elsewhere, for it shows that demonising and harassing a courageous writer does not signal their vocal death. To the contrary, their voice remains fully alive, capable of reverberating far and wide, through platforms that awards like this provides.”