A witch hunt for homosexuals in Mali: One victim's story (2/2)

Malian Diaby Baila was a victim of harassment by LCHM Facebook pages, an online community that leads a campaign of hate against LGBTI people in Mali. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team about his terrifying experience.
Malian Diaby Baila was a victim of harassment by LCHM Facebook pages, an online community that leads a campaign of hate against LGBTI people in Mali. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team about his terrifying experience.

Social media groups and web pages have gained popularity in Mali in recent months by launching what they call a "hunt for homosexuals”, posting photos meant to identify and humiliate gay people. The posts often incite violence by sharing homemade videos and calling on the public to kill or assault people suspected of being gay. This virtual witch hunt has real-life consequences for those being targeted. One Malian organisation is trying to navigate an incredibly complex legal landscape to offer help – and justice – to victims. 

In the first part of this investigation, we talked to some of the administrators of these LCHM ("Lutte contre l’homosexualité au Mali" or “Fight Against Homosexuality in Mali”) pages to try to understand their reasoning, method and aims.


  INVESTIGATION: Gays in Mali are hunted and humiliated online (1/2)

Diaby Balla is a young Malian national, now living in Côte d’Ivoire, who describes himself as "gay and transvestite”. Balla was the target of online harassment by a Malian living in Canada who goes by an online pseudonym, “Momo”. Momo, who often writes about minor Malian celebrities, called Balla “the most famous homo in Mali”. Balla told the FRANCE 24 Observers about the terrifying series of events that followed. 

"My attackers said to me: 'We’re going to kill you'."

I got my first warning in June when some of my friends said, “Diaby, we saw your photo on Facebook. Some people said they were looking for you.”

The photos of me that were circulating online were ones that I had shared with friends in private groups, mostly on WhatsApp. They were snapshots of me dressed as a woman, wearing high heels and long fingernails. I have no idea how they got these photos, but the message was clear: They were calling on their followers to hunt me down.

In one of the videos (in Bambara), "Momo" shows Balla’s photo and identifies him by name. Momo also said that Balla represents “everything that we need to fight in Mali”.

Then it got worse. Other people whom I didn’t know made videos saying that I was living in Côte d’Ivoire and offered a million CFA francs [Editor’s note: roughly €1,500] to whoever could track me down. In the comments section there were disturbing messages from people who said they had seen me in different places in Abidjan. They even described what I was wearing — and it was all true. I had actually been to those places, wearing those clothes.

Here is a sample of the comments posted by people saying they saw Balla in different parts of Abidjan. (Balla confirms that he was in those areas and wearing those clothes.) The comments are translated from French and lightly edited.

Comment 1: It’s him, neighbour… he passes in front of our house or he is still at the market.

Comment 2: In any case, neighbour, I saw him on Monday. He’s tall … and wears a long, black boubou with a hat to cover up…

Comment 3: This cursed homo walks around freely here

Comment 4: If you are looking for that thing, he is near the modern high school.

"I made a video to respond to them so I wouldn’t be condemned to living in fear"

I decided to make a video and post it on Facebook to respond to this group of people, who are determined to terrorise the LGBTGI community. I just couldn’t let myself be humiliated like that — and I couldn’t just let the community be humiliated either.

In my video, I spoke directly to the person who shared the first photo of me online. I told him that you can’t change a person by harassing them on social media. I had to respond because, if not, I would have been condemned to live in fear.

In a video shared on a Malian Facebook page defending LGBTI rights, Balla responded to the threats he had received from LCHM Facebook pages.

This Facebook post has been translated from French and lightly edited.

"Baila 2 - Momo still zero

Momo, if you don’t have anything else to say, just say that there is a fish in the water. Defend yourself like a real man. Stop saying that Balla insulted everyone. Balla’s insults are for you and for you alone. So stop generalising that like a child.

We can really see that you don’t have any more arguments. But because most of the people who follow you are sheep, you can just keep deceiving them."

In Côte d’Ivoire, I got very positive reactions to my video: Ivorians recognised me in the street and wanted to take pictures with me. They say what I did was courageous. [Editor’s note: Officially, Ivorian law states that people can be punished for an "act against nature with an individual of the same sex". Last November, two men were sentenced to three months in prison after being convicted of having sex. But the 20-year-old law is rarely applied and Côte d’Ivoire has a regional reputation for being tolerant towards members of the LGBTQI community].

"Since I was attacked, I go out much less"

But this whole thing has also caused problems for me. Three weeks ago, I was going to do some shopping when someone hit me in the back. I fell to the ground and, when I turned around, I saw two men. “We are going to kill you, you sick thing,” they said. I tried to protect myself by throwing stones at them but they hit back. I was lucky enough to escape with no serious injuries, though I was covered with bruises and my clothes were ripped.

I could tell from their accents that my two attackers were Malian. I knew that they were somehow connected to this campaign.

Since then, I’ve been much more careful. I always hesitate before I leave the house because I’m afraid of encountering someone with bad intentions. For the time being, I don’t want to contact the Malian authorities because the situation has cooled off a bit since the summer. There’s been less incitement to violence and hatred. But this whole series of events has definitely left its mark on me.

In September, however, Balla’s photo was still being circulated on social media, often with messages of hate.

This comment (posted in French) reads: "Tanti Balla Diaby, it’s been a while. The most cursed in Mali. With your body, you look like a cricket."

"Influential imams on social media often support these movements"

In the wake of this online harassment, several different collectives have mobilised – both on social media and within the legal system. One such organisation is the Mali Jolies Dew collective, some of whose members spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team but who wanted to remain anonymous.

The first victims are often gay people, living in working class neighbourhoods in Mali. In these communities, the level of education is often less than in other areas and religion is the most important influence. Lately, influential imams who have a large following on social media, like Chouala Bayaya ou Tyson Haidara [two openly homophobic imams], have been supporting these online witch hunts. It’s a way for them to gain followers during their sermons [Editor’s note: About 90% of Malians are Muslim].

We do what we can to fight this trend with the few resources we have. We are in constant contact with about a dozen people who are victims of this witch hunt, but it is extremely difficult to help them as most of them have already left Mali. We offer them the option of talking to a psychologist. We have also tried to alert the Malian authorities but there is still a reluctance to take action on this issue for fear of alienating part of the population.

The organisation says that one complaint against these groups has already been filed by a Malian living in Canada and that it is working on filing a complaint in France as well.

Facebook pages like Malika, which were set up to defend the rights of the LGBTI community in Mali, have also been the target of attacks.

The post below has been translated from French and lightly edited.

"Warning, warning, danger.

Be careful about fake profiles, currently there is a fake Facebook account under the name Malika that attacks the religion of Islam, that defends the homo cause. If anyone is against homos then you are a target.

A profile that doesn’t have its own face or voice

There is information … paid for by homos to attack Islam. Everyone who is against homos, be warned … this [is an] account belonging to an invisible homo organisation."

What help is available for victims?

This harassment, which has affected people in France and Canada as well as Mali, creates a complex judicial situation. Fabrice Lorvo, a lawyer who specialises in media law at FTPA legal firm and is a regular commentator on the France Culture radio station, explained to the FRANCE 24 Observers team just how complex seeking legal recourse might be.   

This kind of case is a good example of the new challenges posed by social media. The power dynamic is completely skewed – social media means that someone’s privacy can be infringed upon in an instant: their information can go global instantly without the aggressor having to pay anything. On the other hand, a victim who has had something like this happen to them might have to file complaints in each relevant country, one by one. That kind of process is time consuming and can be expensive, as the complexity of the process often necessitates the hiring of a legal professional.

The legal response to the complaint can vary depending on whether the accusations are valid [if the person actually is homosexual or has had sexual relations with someone of the same sex as alleged]. In countries where hate speech is illegal or socially unacceptable, falsely accusing someone of being gay could only have the effect of damaging his or her reputation.

"The risk of a boomerang effect"

In France, there are criminal sanctions for people who “incite hate or violence to a person or a group of people because of their sex or sexual orientation”.

So if, for example, the incitement to hatred or violence was made by a Malian living in France, then the victim, the public prosecutor or certain organisations could take the matter to court in France.

However, if the incitement to hatred took place in a country that doesn’t have a law protecting people from being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, then a court case could have a harmful boomerang effect because the case could be seen as retaliation by a person targeted for his or her sexual orientation.

Recently, a few different initiatives have been launched in Mali in an attempt to raise awareness about the LGBTQI community and to chip away at the rampant intolerance in the country. In October 2016, for example, several young Malians created a short film trying to raise awareness about the struggles faced by the LGBTQI community. The film follows a gay Malian teenager who was bullied at school and shows the effects of the violence and the harassment he endured. However, for the time being, initiatives such as these are few and far between.