Philippines scrambles to curb child exploitation as citizens become internet-savvy
A TOTAL of 67 million Filipinos out of 105.7 million population are active social media users as of January 2018 study, and this is both seen as a blessing and a curse after online predators victimizing Filipino children are also on the rise.
Gregorio Angelo Villar, deputy director general of the Philippine Information Agency, admitted that communities need to be empowered with “timely, accurate, and relevant information” for them to became proactive citizens, have better quality of life and eventually fight the prevalence of Online Sexual Exploitation of Children (Osec) in the country.
In 2014 alone, the Philippine Department of Justice received 1,000 cyber tip reports each month, according to the International Justice Mission, a global organization that protects the poor from violence through the developing world.
In the first four months of 2015, these referrals doubled to more than 2,000.
In the group’s first 64 cases from 2011 to January 1, 2017, they have helped rescue 165 victims of Osec.
Over half or 50.3 percent of these victims were in their pre-teens, the youngest of these was a three-month-old baby boy, IJM reported.
As of January 2018, the organization disclosed that with its support, it has conducted 76 rescue operations, with 268 victims rescued, 121 suspects arrested, and 20 people convicted.
“More than 80 percent of victims rescued from online sexual exploitation are minors, making this a staggering humanitarian issue and a problem for the Philippine law enforcement to tackle….,” said Samson Inocencio Jr., national director of IJP Philippines, in a statement.
According to IJM, victims of Osec comprised 13 percent adults and 87 percent minors where 55 percent of Osec victims are 12 years old or younger.
In working alongside its partners in the Philippine public justice system, IJM has uncovered an increasing number of cases involving the online sexual exploitation of children, exploiting children as young as three months old.
“Perpetrators of online sexual exploitation produce illicit photographs, pornographic videos, and customer-directed live sex shows for costumers residing overseas. These customer-criminals are active in directing the abuse perpetrated on the young children. This crime is spreading as more people gain access to the internet,” the statement said.
The Philippines will require a coordinated strategy that centers around a strong justice system response to confront this new crime, it added.
While acknowledging IJM for their works, Villar also lauded the country’s security forces in strengthening the campaign against Osec and trafficking cases.
Villar said they are closely working with IJM “in rescuing victims of violence, bringing criminals to justice, in restoring survivors and strengthening the justice system.”
With their partnership, Villar said authorities “have already lowered, a number drop with children that available for commercial sex, at the same time together with our law enforcement we have already rescued more than a thousand children from these crimes.”
“One thing we wish to commit or emphasize here is that for IJM, you are not alone,” he added.
Villar, however, said fighting and ending Osec is a “priority” President Rodrigo Duterte administration.
“The government continues to make strides to curb this problem. Last February, local government units conducted activities in accordance with the national awareness week for the prevention of child abuse. The PIA in itself also produced advocacy materials in raising awareness regarding this problem,” said Villar, adding that a few local government units have also collaborated to push for a three-year endeavor to fight online abuse in different villages.
While training for security personnel and strengthening the campaign against trafficking continue, he said.
In its “Digital in 2018” report of internet and social media usage around the globe, US-based social media think-tank Hootsuite found out that for Filipinos, the average daily time spent using the internet via any device is 9 hours and 29 minutes; and that for their weekly online activities, 47 percent use it to socialize.
“Most Filipinos use internet longer than they sleep, probably two-thirds of it is for work and one-third is for play or vice versa, depending on your consumption. But I am sure most of you here do not sleep more than nine hours a day,” Villar said.
On the accessibility of device for Filipinos, 95 percent has access to smartphones; mobile phones, 89 percent; television, 97 percent; laptop, 38 percent; tablet, 29 percent.
The availability of smartphones and other devices capable of internet access plus faster and more affordable data services paved way for the greater internet.
“Despite access to this technology, the main problem that we have is how to use it. The kind of discipline that we have,” Villar said while pointing out on how Filipinos ranked number 3 in the world on the study of misconception index, particularly on how they show their “ignorance” on the issue of human rights.
“These are the direct problem that we see… and we laugh about it, but we are not addressing it,” Villar said.
In connection with rising cases of Osec in the country, Villar also noted how pornographic sites, alongside Facebook and YouTube, are also included in the top list of websites accessed by Filipinos.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, Villar said.
“It’s damning, unfortunate. On my end as an advocate of using these technologies for the betterment of the society, I am pushing for it. But the more we push of these things, the more people are also exploited because of ignorance, incapability, or the lack of media information and literacy,” said Villar.
According to Villar, if the government is studying on how to use the social media to reach its constituents, the same was also done by perpetrators of Osec to “reach their market.”
As they know that Filipinos are all connected to Facebook, they also use it to recruit and to exploit people through the dark wave, he said.
Predators also expect predatory materials to be available online, he added.
“Let’s address the structural problems, the cultural problem. We have to accept the fact that it is already a cultural problem to us, this acceptance of ignorance on how we use information correctly,” said Villar, as he appealed to the public not to take these things for granted.
Villar hoped that as Filipinos log on social media sites, they should also bear in mind that they could be of help to others in battling Osec and misinformation.
Rebelander Basilan, the partnership development coordinator of IJM, said there are various red flags to lead the public and authorities on suspected Osec operation.
These include someone having varied means of internet connection (broadband, pocket wifi, etc); frequent trips to money transfer outlets; having multiple social media accounts (Facebook, Messenger, Skype, etc.); several male foreigner friends on social media; and unexplained wealth.
He also debunked some myths on Osec cases, saying it is wrong for people to say that Osec is just about standing naked in front of the camera and no physical contact happened because in reality these victims are molested and sexually abused by adults.
Basilan said that it is wrong to say that Osec does not harm children because, in reality, the children are “deeply traumatized.”
It is also wrong that to say that rescuing children from Osec results in a dysfunctional family, because, as it is, these victims already have a dysfunctional family environment, he added.
“Osec is a very dark world but there is hope for children to recover…We need to be vigilant…If we don’t rescue these children, it will be normal for them,” Basilan said in a forum in Tacloban earlier.
While he urged the public to report any cases of Osec to authorities, he also cautioned media and government information officers on proper guidelines in reporting it to ensure the “privacy and the best interest” of the victims.
In February this year, IJM helped authorities in rescuing 13 victims of cybersex den in Tacloban City and in Biliran province.
Authorities caught an elder sister in the act of offering to sexually abuse minor siblings ages 15 and 17 and “live streamed” those sex acts in exchange for money from a foreigner.
Ronald O. Reyes, SunStar Philippines