Stella Nyanzi, the Ugandan academic, activist, and vocal critic of President Yoweri Museveni has been awarded the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International award for freedom of expression, given to writers who “continue to work for freedom of expression in the face of persecution.”
Nyanzi is currently serving a 15-month-sentence for “cyber harassment” after she published a poem in which she wrote that she wished “the acidic pus flooding Esiteri’s (the president’s mother) vaginal canal had to burn up your unborn fetus. Burn you up as badly as you have corroded all morality and professionalism out of our public institutions in Uganda.”
According to the director of PEN International, Carles Torner, her unfiltered outspokenness around the issues facing her country is what earned her the award. “For her, writing is a permanent form of resistance in front of a regime that is trying to suppress her,” said Torner at the award ceremony.
During the ceremony, which took place in The Hague, Netherlands, an empty chair was used to represent Nyanzi’s absence, reports The Guardian. The activist did, however, manage to send an acceptance speech from prison.“Unlawful laws are used in unjust courts to punish citizens whose only crime is exercising their constitutional freedom to write boldly about the dictatorship,” wrote Nyanzi.
“My custodial sentence in a maximum-security prison highlights how fearful this dictator and his cronies are of writers,” she added. “Isn’t the pen, indeed, mightier than the sword?”
Nyanzi’s case highlights Museveni’s constant crackdowns on opponents and critics of his 30-year-old regime. Members of the press and public figures such as Bobi Wine have also been regular targets of the president’s attacks.
Nyanzi previously spent a month in prison in 2017 for referring to Museveni as a “pair of buttocks.”
“Though her words might be colorful and shocking to some, this is not enough to justify the imposition of penalties,” Jennifer Clement, PEN International president, is quoted as saying. “Public officials should tolerate a higher degree of criticism than ordinary citizens.”
Previous winners of the award include Cameroonian activist and journalist Enoh Meyomesse, as well as Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega.