MANILA - The Philippines has declared an all-out "war" against the sexual exploitation of children online, vowing to prosecute and jail perpetrators amid a threefold surge in online sexual abuse cases involving children.
In a joint press conference on Tuesday (Aug 23), members of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr's Cabinet said they would crack down with tougher measures on those behind child pornography material involving Filipino minors.
"We're declaring a war on this," said the country's Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla, adding that there would be no hesitation in prosecuting anybody who contributes to the sexual exploitation of children online.
Concerned government agencies, from law enforcement to the information and communications technology ministry, promised to prioritise holding violators accountable for exploiting children online.
They did not provide details of their plan for now.
Officials have attributed the rise in online child sexual abuse cases to new technologies, lax rules on foreign travellers and pandemic lockdowns.
Latest available data from the Justice Ministry showed online child sexual abuse cases rose to 279,166 during the Covid-19 lockdown in the Philippines from March to May 2020. That accounts for a whopping 264.6 per cent increase compared with the same period in 2019, when recorded cases were at 76,561.
A 2022 study by Unicef, Interpol, and Ecpat International, a global network of organisations against the sexual exploitation of children, also said that around 20 per cent of Internet users in the Philippines who are between 12 and 17 years old had been sexually abused online.
Social Welfare Secretary Erwin Tulfo said child pornography has been a problem in the Philippines for a long time, but that it has often been overshadowed by other issues.
When the pandemic hit, Mr Tulfo said several cash-strapped parents ended up prostituting their own children online and offering them up for sexual exploitation.
"We're so busy with other problems like the pandemic, war on drugs, terrorism in Mindanao. The online sexual abuse of children has been there and it's a big problem, but it was being neglected. So right now, this administration is keen and very serious on stopping this," said Mr Tulfo.
It does not help that the Philippines makes it easy for foreigners to enter the country, said Mrs Nikki Prieto-Teodoro, Mr Marcos' envoy to Unicef.
"It's easy to come to the country. Lockdown played a big part of parents prostituting, marketing their children online for profit. It's easy to put up a site," said Mrs Teodoro.
In 2018, Australian sex offender Peter Gerard Scully was jailed for life in the Philippines for running a cybersex den exploiting Filipino minors from the regional island of Mindanao. He would record himself as he sexually abused the children, even a one-year-old baby, then sell the videos to his clients in Europe.
The Marcos administration's clampdown on sexual abuse of children online comes roughly a month after a law took effect on July 30 to give more teeth to the Anti-Pornography Act.
Under the country's legislative rules, a Bill passed by its bicameral Congress automatically becomes law if the president does not act on it 30 days after receipt from lawmakers.
Congress gave the green light for the Bill, known as the Anti-Online Sexual Abuse or Exploitation of Children (OSAEC) Act, and submitted it for signing by former president Rodrigo Duterte on June 29.
But he did not touch the Bill until his term ended the next day. His successor, Mr Marcos, neither approved nor rejected it, allowing the constitutional rule for pending Bills to become law to take effect.
The OSAEC Act penalises the combined use of offline and online means to sexually exploit children.
It also mandates accountability from social media platforms and other electronic service providers where child pornography materials may be spread. Internet platforms must take down these posts, preserve the evidence and submit them to law enforcement agencies.
Those who wilfully subscribe to child pornography websites, even social media users who create posts making children objects of sexual fantasy, will be penalised in the Philippines.
Depending on the severity of the crime, violators may face jail time of a minimum of six years and up to life imprisonment, plus a fine ranging from 100,000 pesos to 20 million pesos (S$2,500 to S$498,000).