Social Issues

Philippines emerges as global hub of online child pornography

By Sara Gómez Armas

Manila, June 10 (efe-epa).- A Filipino boy of about 12 years of age wiggles to music as he suggestively lowers his pants in a Twitter video, which lasts justs 10 seconds and ends just short of showing the boy naked.

In order to watch the full version, one has to follow the account, attributed to a certain Alfonso Santos, send a private message and pay 500 pesos ($10). In exchange, they promise much more #baget content, a hashtag under which an infinite amount of online material showing the sexual abuse of minors is easily found.

“Baget” is a Tagalog term roughly translated as “young boy,” as the Philippines establishes itself as a global hub of online child pornography, with content increasing threefold between 2014 and 2017, according to a study published in May by the nonprofit International Justice Mission (IJM).

The problem has been aggravated during an extended COVID-19 lockdown with victims being forced to spend more time confined with aggressors, and as some websites have crashed due to the massive traffic of viewers.

“Endemic poverty, proficiency in English, relatively inexpensive access to the internet and the availability of different remittance centers are the main reasons that have made the Philippines the main source of OSEC (online sexual exploitation of children),” Gideon Cauton, director of the IJM in the Philippines, told EFE.

The exhaustive study by the organization, the result of six years of research, shows that the number of Philippine IP addresses providing child pornography increased 250 percent within three years, going from 23,333 in 2014 to 81,723 in 2017.

Although the most common age group in child pornography is 12-15 years, around 9 percent of the cases discovered in the Philippines involved children younger than 3 years of age.

Around half the victims are under the age of 12 and the majority are girls, although in recent years there has been an increase in pornographic material featuring boys.

The consumers are usually adult men in developed countries – mainly Australia and the United States – but in 66 percent of the cases the intermediary or abuser is someone from the immediate environment of the child or a trusted individual, sometimes even the parents.

“It’s a crime committed at home – a hidden crime, very hard to track down,” Cauton said.

Often when one culprit is tracked down, more cases soon turn up in the same community, which is generally impoverished.

Although the study documents cases until 2017, authorities warn that the problem persists in the Philippines, where several rescue operations of minors exploited by their mothers have been carried out in recent months.

Thanks to an anonymous tip from a neighbor, a 28-year-old mother was arrested in Manila on May 27 for exploiting four of her seven children – two boys and two girls aged between 9-13 years – who were forced to perform live sexual acts in front of a camera in exchange for money.

A female neighbor was also detained over receiving foreign payments through a remittance center, where it is easy to keep the identities of the sender and receiver secret.

Last year the government established the Philippine Internet Crimes Against Children Center (PICACC) – a unique initiative in Southeast Asia – which involves the national police, armed forces, the National Bureau of Investigation and the departments of justice and social welfare, with the advice of the IJM.

The PICACC closely collaborates with law enforcement agencies pursuing these crimes in the United Kingdom and Australia, a crucial cooperation as 64 percent of online child exploitation cases in the Philippines are uncovered when these countries arrest someone in possession of child pornography of Philippine origin.

In one such case, on May 14 another mother was arrested in the city of Angeles over sexual webcam content of her two daughters aged 6 and 14, and her 11-year-old stepdaughter, thanks to information shared by Australian police, which found the material on the computer of a suspected sexual predator.

“Both women may face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and a fine of 2 million to 5 million pesos ($40,000-$100,000),” Sheila Portento, a police colonel and the co-director of the PIACC, told EFE.

Although the Philippine authorities have become more aware of the problem and assigned more resources for such operations, Portento highlighted obstacles in finding live and streaming content, which do not leave much of a trace online.

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