YAOUNDE - Social media use has exploded in Cameroon, as have the government’s efforts to police it.
These members of the Presbyterian church Bota in Limbe, southwestern Cameroon are praying for three local men: Fomusoh Ivo Feh, Afuh Nivelle Nfor and Azah Levis Gob.
They were convicted by a military court this month after allegedly sharing an SMS joke about recruitment for the Boko Haram terrorist group. The proceedings were closed to the public and Amnesty International and local rights groups condemned the conviction.
Among those gathered at the church is Tabot Timothy, a 22-year-old law student at the University of Douala-Cameroon.
“It was normal for a thorough investigation to be carried out to ascertain that these guys were joking. It is unjust," Timothy said. "Thorough investigations were not carried out."
Cameroon's government has used several laws to crack down on mobile and online communications, including a 2014 anti-terrorism law and the newly revised penal code.
Barrister George Marcellin Tsoungui, a member of the Cameroon Bar Council says prison time of six months to two years and fines of $10,000 to $20,000 await those who use electronic media to propagate information without proof. He says the sanctions can be doubled if it is found that the communications were intended to destabilize social peace.
Police detained a journalist in January after he erroneously reported on social media that President Paul Biya had visited soldiers in the north.
In March, police arrested people accused of sharing a leaked confidential letter on social media. The letter was from the country's minister of defense and said that Boko Haram terrorists had arrived in Yaounde.
The country's National Communications Council has the power to suspend journalists and seal media houses.
The council is investigating 20 complaints of what it calls “social media blackmail” submitted by senior state officials. One of the complaints concerns a minister who was seen on Facebook dancing to the music of Franko, an artist whose songs were banned by the government.
Despite the arrests, social media and mobile messaging apps and networking sites are increasingly popular in Cameroon, and are used by opponents and supporters of the government alike.
"Social media is inevitable. It's like a devil that you are called upon to live with. It is difficult to suppress it. It's just going to be like throwing water on a duck’s back," said Nelson Tawe, a social media consultant. "Social media has come to stay there is no way you can suppress it. I think that government is going to have an uphill task to succeed in what it is trying to do."
Cameroon is not the only country getting jittery about the fast form of communication.
Several countries in Africa have taken similar measures, and a new report from the Washington-based Freedom House says internet freedom has declined globally for the sixth consecutive year.