In Cameroon, homosexuality is still considered a criminal offence and carries a jail sentence of six months to five years as well as a fine. Many are regularly arrested without any evidence of being 'guilty'. During their trial, most people lack steady legal assistance, suffer numerous abuses and are often afraid to press charges or do not know how to. The internet, however, is changing these circumstances.
On 13 September, the organization All Out launched on its website the Free Roger Now petition. It calls Cameroonian President Paul Biya and his minister of justice "to free Roger Jean-Claude Mbédé, who was jailed for sending a text message, and to place a moratorium on Cameroon's discriminatory anti-gay laws."
More than one 110,000 people from around the world have signed the petition in just six weeks. Comments read "love ain't a crime man" and "We all have the right to live the way we see fit", to cite but a few.
According to the petition, Cameroon's ant-gay laws "deny basic human rights to many Cameroonians like Roger and create an environment of hostility and fear". The petition goes on to urge ending "the use of laws that make it a crime to love who you choose and encourage their permanent repeal".
Besides providing a forum for homosexuals and others who are sympathetic to the cause, the internet is providing a safer way for Cameroonians to fight for the respect of human rights.
The All Out website describes its objectives as "building a truly global community able to respond to moments of crisis and opportunity, to advance the lives and freedoms of LGBT people everywhere" and credits "the unprecedented possibilities for global people power that new social media technologies allow".
Yves, a 22-year-old Cameroonian who signed the Free Roger petition, is a living example. "I would have never been able to speak so openly in a paper or on the radio," he says. "The anonymity offered by the web allows me to freely fight for my rights without fear of being thrown in jail."
Other websites, blogs and Facebook pages have also begun mobilizing for the rights of gays. Although Cameroon's anti-gay laws prevent locally based websites from openly advocating such rights, they do not hesitate to send sensitization messages whenever the opportunity arises.
A case in point is Sid'Ado, which is engaged in the prevention of HIV/AIDS among young people. "The government should condemn violations of the right to legal consultation in homosexuality cases," reads a message on the organization's homepage.
"The website is a window that allows us to be known, to raise awareness about our activities across the globe," says Sid'Ado's president, Stéphane Koche.
He is convinced that the message of prevention is bearing fruit, though still exercises caution. "Our only indicator in measuring the impact of this campaign is the number of people who visit the website," he says.
Web visitors have expressed their satisfaction. "It was through the Facebook page of an organization that sensitizes gay sex workers on AIDS that I learned more about preventive measures," recalls Hervé, a young man in Yaoundé. "It is written on the website that we should never allow a police officer or a gendarme to enter our home without a warrant. During an interrogation, we should never speak or sign any statement without the presence of a lawyer," he says.
A man named Marc probably knows best about the impact of social networks. In May 2005, he was arrested at a gay bar and thrown in jail under suspicion of homosexuality.
"Without any money or legal assistance, I thought I would share my story online. That is how the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission heard about my case. They jumped in and sent six lawyers to represent me," he recalls.
The lawyers ensured that he got a fair trial. Twelve months later, he was freed.
However, this is not the case for many other Cameroonians accused of homosexuality. Without the internet, Marc believes his case would have been "very critical", as he would have had no legal assistance and most likely would still be in prison.