The sexual exploitation of children has been a pressing concern in the Philippines for years, but the crime has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sexual predators are stuck at home, pushing the demand for more child abuse materials, which poor Filipino families supply, as they are forced to find ways to earn money while in quarantine.
In this first episode of a special series produced in collaboration with ABS-CBN News, we will hear from government agencies and a trafficker about how social media has aided these crimes against children.
Because of the nature of the subject, some parts of this podcast will be graphic and may be triggering to some listeners. Discretion is highly advised.
This episode was written by Cherry Salazar of PCIJ and produced by ABS-CBN News. Neil Jayson Servallos of PCIJ and the UST Journalism School and Chiara Zambrano of ABS-CBN News conducted the interviews. Photograph by Jam Sta. Rosa.
This episode is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute’s Asian Stories project, in collaboration with ABS-CBN News, the South China Morning Post, The Korea Times and Tempo in Indonesia.
For more on this topic, you may read the longform investigative report THE FILIPINO MOTHERS SELLING THEIR CHILDREN FOR ONLINE SEXUAL ABUSE here.
READ THE FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THE PODCAST:
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: It’s becoming hard to imagine life without social media anymore. With online deliveries, shopping is done with just a tap of our smartphone. Communicating with loved ones who can be miles away was never been easier. And these days, work and school can be done within the confines of your own home.
But in this same social media space, thre are crimes that are being enabled, too. Among them: the online sexual exploitation of children, or OSEC.
Hello and welcome to “On the Record,” the podcast of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.
You are listening to the first episode of a special series produced in collaboration with ABS-CBN News and Sydney-based Judith Neilson Institute, a non-partisan, independent group that supports quality journalism across the globe.
This episode is part of Asian Stories, an investigative collaboration among PCIJ, ABS-CBN News, the South China Morning Post, the Korea Times, and Tempo of Indonesia.
In this episode, we'll tell the story with various government agencies and a trafficker herself.
Because of the nature of this subject, some parts of this podcast will be graphic and may be triggering to some listeners. Discretion is highly advised.
We begin with the question: What is OSEC?
Vic Lorenzo, cybercrime division chief of the National Bureau of Investigation, explains.
Vic Lorenzo, National Bureau of Investigation (NBI): Online sexual exploitation of children, OSEC as we call it, embraces all forms of trafficking of child pornography materials, regardless if it is streaming, distribution of photography, and other forms of media.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: OSEC has been a pressing concern for years, but the crime has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Online sexual predators are all stuck at home, pushing the demand for more OSEC materials, which poor Filipino families supply, as they are forced to find ways to earn money while in quarantine.
There are no official figures yet, but monitoring by authorities such as the Department of Justice, the Anti-Money Laundering Council, and the US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children suggest a spike in child pornography during the pandemic.
Reports of OSEC more than tripled in the period of March to May 2020.
Vic Lorenzo, NBI: There was a study in 2019, wherein it was revealed that the epicenter of OSEC materials [is in] the Philippines. There are so many materials floating around the internet that are being produced in the Philippines, and we should be addressing this.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: Lorenzo is referring to the study conducted by the International Justice Mission, the US Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and the Philippines’s Interagency Council Against Trafficking or IACAT.
Between 2011 to 2017, there were 90 cases of OSEC in the country, with 381 victims. This means an average of four victims per case. One in every nine cases involved at least 10 victims.
According to global data from law enforcement agencies, the Philippines received 237 OSEC case referrals or more than eight times as many referrals as any other country from 2010 to 2017.
The Philippines is on the supply side, while the demand mostly comes from other countries.
Records showed that all known OSEC customers were male, with ages ranging from 40 to 72 years old. They pay for the sexual exploitation of a minor. Requests and instructions are carried out through online channels. Lorenzo tells us more.
Vic Lorenzo, NBI: Sexual predators will befriend one member of the family, and they will try to convince them to produce OSEC materials in consideration of a sum of money. That’s how it will start.
They will tell you that they are rich people, they could easily support your family, [and] they could easily support all your needs.
“Do you have a daughter? Can you provide me a photo of her in formal attire? in a skimpy dress? in underwear? and ultimately, naked?” Then, “Can you perform? Can you make her dance? Can you make her do some stuff? And we’re going to pay you. If you go beyond that dancing, then we will give you more.”
Depending on the instruction of the sexual predators, it could be the whole family; siblings together, touching each other.
People that [we] have arrested, when we ask them how long they have been communicating with sexual predators, usually the first act in producing the OSEC, [they tell us] it will only take a week.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: This was exactly how a 31-year-old mother from Bulacan trafficked her child. To protect her identity and those of her children, we will call her “Carmen Lirio.”
Carmen Lirio (not her real name): Sa site po [kami nagkakilala]. Sasabihin lang po, “Looking for help to buy food.” Tapos sila na po bahala kung ano’ng kapalit po. May Australian, may US, may UK.
Tinanong ko po siya kung ano’ng gusto niya. Sabi ko, kung gusto niya ‘yung solo show. Sabi niya ayaw niya raw ‘yun, naisip ko po, “Ah, gusto nito bata. Ayaw niya lang po magsalita.” Tapos natuwa po siya noong sinabi kong bata. Tapos ayun na po… sinendan ko na lang po siya ng video [ng] bata.
Neil Servallos, reporter: Yung anak n’yo po?
Carmen Lirio: Opo.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: Of her five children, it was her eight-year-old daughter who had to engage in lewd, erotic behavior before the camera.
Carmen Lirio: Nagsho-show po siya mag-isa po. Ano lang po, i-open lang po ‘yung [genitals] ng bata tapos, ano, tuwad po ‘yung bata. Tinulungan niya po ako nang dalawang beses kaya nagtiwala naman po ako sa kanya kaya sinunod ko po ‘yung gusto niya.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: And just as it is easy to follow the demands of a paying customer, a child will not think twice about trusting his or her own blood.
The 2019 study found that OSEC is usually a family-based crime. Forty-two percent of OSEC cases were facilitated by relatives, while 41 percent were facilitated by biological parents. And mothers, who were supposed to show an attitude of care, were more often the traffickers of their own children.
PCol. Sheila Portento, Philippine National Police Women and Children Protection Center (PNP-WCPC): Majority ng facilitators natin are actually nanay. The facilitator is known to the child. So, di ba, ang bata sa’tin, syempre lalo kung nanay, it will be too easy, not even lifting a finger, to convince the child na gawin ito. Dahil si bata is very trusting. ‘Yung tipong [if] there’s one person who needs to protect the child first, nanay siya.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: That was Police Colonel Sheila Portento speaking. Portento heads the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division under the Women and Children Protection Center of the Philippine National Police.
PCol. Sheila Portento, WCPC: Pangalawa, ang mindset ng nanay o facilitator na no harm naman sa’yo ‘to kasi walang physical contact, di ba? Ikaw kaharap kita ngayon wala ka namang magagawa e, di mo naman ako mahahawakan. “Ako naman ‘yung nanay, ako naman ‘yung hahawak sa’yo, ako naman ‘yung magpapasok nitong object na ito,” so ganun. “Wala siyang harm, ako naman ito, nanay mo.”
The convincing power of the nanay is so much easier na madaling mapasunod ‘yung bata.
Kasabay doon ‘yung pagpapa-guilty sa bata. I talked to one of the facilitators na nanay. Ang tinanong ko, kasi she was the same age as [I am] at ‘yung bata, ‘yung anak na inaabuso niya, was the same age as my youngest daughter, so parang, “Relate ako sa’yo, bakit nagawa mo ‘to? Paano mo nakumbinsi ‘yung anak mo na gawin ‘to? “So ang sabi niya daw e, “Anak, ‘pag di natin ginawa ‘to, mapuputulan tayo ng kuryente. Anyway, ‘pag kumita naman [tayo at] mabayaran, bibigyan kita ng bagong sapatos.”
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: But there is apparently a price to a child’s well-being and dignity. Lirio shares her experience.
Carmen Lirio: Malaki na po ‘yung P2,000 na nakuha ko po. May nakuha pa nga po ako, P150. Dipende po sa [tao], may magandang magbigay, may kuripot magbigay. Kasi ‘yung iba, alam po nila ‘yung halaga ng peso sa [pera nila] kaya kung magkano lang [ang ibigay] nila, tinatanggap ko po. Sabi ko, pera na rin po ‘yun kaysa wala.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: Their family used to sell food across a school. But with the pandemic forcing a shift to online classes, they had no choice but to close shop. Her husband earns only P1,600 or roughly US$35 a month. That is clearly not enough for their daily needs.
Carmen Lirio: Kailangan ko po ng pera pangkain ng mga anak ko kaya ko po nagawa ‘yun. Di ko naman po talaga gawain ‘yun. Napilitan lang po talaga. Ginawa ko po ‘yun para bigyan sila ng pagkain, [para] makakain sila [nang] tatlong beses [sa] isang araw, kahit di na ako. Kahit nagkakape na lang ako, basta sila makakain. Minsan bitin sa kanila ‘yung ulam.
Neil Servallos, reporter: So nag-aaral po ba sila ngayon?
Carmen Lirio: Opo.
Neil Servallos, reporter: Nabilhan n’yo po sila ng tablet pang-aral?
Carmen Lirio: Hindi po, secondhand lang po na cellphone. Isa na lang po, hati-hati sila.
Neil Servallos, reporter: Tingin n’yo, mangyayari po ito sa inyo kung—
Carmen Lirio: Gusto ko din po ng stable na trabaho kaya lang po wala po akong mahanap na trabaho.
Neil Servallos, reporter: Nakapagtapos po ba kayo, ma’am?
Carmen Lirio: Hindi po.
Neil Servallos, reporter: Ano lang po ang natapos ninyo?
Carmen Lirio: Grade 6 lang po.
Neil Servallos, reporter: ‘Yung asawa n’yo po?
Carmen Lirio: First year high school lang po.
Vic Lorenzo, NBI: The driving force [behind] this is poverty. Are you willing to see your child starve to death? Or if there’s a way, no matter how immoral it is, for you to feed your children, are you not going to do it? This is an opportunity for them, opportunity for them to survive.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: Indeed, OSEC is reprehensible, but it’s an easy way to earn money. All one needs is a working phone camera and an internet connection, and transactions can be done over social media.
Vic Lorenzo, NBI: Ang vehicle in convincing someone to engage in producing OSEC is through social media. That’s the only way. Wala naman kaming nakita na hindi nag-umpisa sa Facebook [at] Twitter. Hindi iyan. Mag-uumpisa iyan, it will always start from social media. Pwedeng Facebook Messenger, Facebook video, or Viber video.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: But this ease of access also poses challenges, especially to law enforcers.
PCol. Sheila Portento, WCPC: Maraming challenges when you talk about OSEC cases. Unang-una, halimbawa na lang, sikat tayo sa livestreaming. ‘Yun ang prevalent and pagdating dito sa bayaran, mas mahal siya kaysa magpapadala ng recorded [videos] or images. The term there na magagamit is, it’s raw. It’s first-generation material. ‘Yung tipong, babae ako, pag may fashion show, ikaw ang unang manonood, parang ganu’n. Sabihin ko man na nagpa-livestream ako ngayon sa’yo, magbabayad ako nang mahal kasi ako’ng unang nanood. I will own up to it, tapos kung idi-distribute ko man siya, most likely mababang value na kasi hindi ito live, e.
E, walang technology all around the world na nakaka-detect real-time. Puwera kung ni-record tapos in-upload at shinare, or merong halimbawang nahuli du’n sa US na siya ang nag-solicit na magkaroon ng livestreaming, naka-save sa laptop niya, pero just the same, history na siya.
Vic Lorenzo, NBI: The only way that we could monitor those [kinds] of activities is with the help of telephone companies. They could not peep into the actual livestream, but they could look into the actual traffic. If there is a continuous traffic in a long period of time, which is unusual in that particular area, then in all probability, this is an OSEC exchange. That’s why we need to confiscate, and we need to conduct forensic examination on those digital gadgets.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: The Philippines has also been tapping social media platforms to help investigate potential OSEC cases.
Atty. Angela Marie de Gracia, Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Cybercrime: Facebook or any electronic service provider that [is] situated in the US, madali nating makukuha ‘yun because of the NCMEC cyber tipline reports.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: That was Attorney Angela Marie de Gracia of the justice department’s Office of Cybercrime. De Gracia was referring to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a non-profit organization based in the US.
The NCMEC serves as a resource center and provides cyber tipline reports to law enforcement agencies around the world. The cyber tipline is a centralized means of reporting OSEC incidents.
Atty. Angela Marie de Gracia, DOJ: Sobrang daming information ang nandoon:
1) Historical information: Kailan mo binuksan ‘yung account? Ano’ng IP address mo? Ano’ng email address mo?
2) Pangalawa, ‘yung mismong actual conversation ng mga tao kasama doon;
3) Pangatlo, ‘yung actual content, ‘yung picture ng bata or picture ng matanda or any other. Basta may connection sa OSEC ando’n din;
4) [Pang-apat,] geographical history: Saan ‘yung bata? Saan ‘yung perpetrator? Ando’n siya lahat.
Matatalino na actually ‘yung mga perpetrator ngayon. Gumagawa sila ng groups sa Facebook, and then meron lang parang clickbait. Merong pahapyaw na photo na di naman ganun ka-tagged as OSEC. Kunwari, picture ng bata — pwede naman ‘yun e, picture ng bata tapos walang bastos — pero makikita mo kapag under investigation, ‘yung mga conversation, merong mga, “Pa-send na ‘yan.”
Meron silang modus na every one month or week pinapalitan ‘yung page name para hindi sila ma-monitor, ganun. It becomes very challenging sa part ng investigators lalo kung gano’n kailap ‘yung mga iniimbestigahan mo.
Ngayon, ang ginagawa na nila, dahil alam nila na si Facebook ay nagmo-monitor ng conversation kapag OSEC — kumbaga may algorithm e, na pag nag-send ka ng OSEC, flagged down ka automatically — di na nila sine-send ‘yung actual content within the Messenger [app]. Gumagawa sila ng Messenger, doon sila nag-uusap ng parang transactions and then lilipat sila sa Telegram, or lilipat sila sa ibang [chat app]. ‘Yun ‘yung isa pa naming problema: lumilipat sila sa [ibang app] na may encryption talaga na hindi naman talaga [US-based] so hindi kami nakakakuha ng accounts.
‘Yun ‘yong medyo mahirap talaga, pero kaya but definitely hindi ito walk in the park.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: Major Joseph Villaran, former spokesperson of the Philippine National Police Anti-Cybercrime Group, seconds this. Villaran is now teaching cyber forensics and investigation at the Philippine National Police Academy.
PMaj. Joseph Villaran, former PNP Anti-Cybercrime Group spokesperson: Nag-a-adjust din sila, nagki-create din sila ng sarili nilang way para maitago ‘yung scheme nila.Di ka naman kailangan techy, basta may internet connection ka lang, pasok ka na sa kanila.
Marami kasing social messenger app. Viber? Encrypted. Group, pwede ka gumawa doon. WhatsApp? That’s private, encrypted end-to-end. So kahit makuha namin ‘yung [report], kailangan namin mas mag-engage mismo sa tao, makipag-communicate sa kanila para mahuli sila.
‘Yung privacy ang pinoprotektahan nila. ‘Yun nga ang sabi nila, may mabuting naidudulot. The problem is may nae-exploit na mga cybercriminal.
Saka dark web. Syempre kung ikaw ay do’n kumikita, gagawa ka ng sarili mong chat application. Do’n na kayo mag-uusap, y’ung dati mong customer, “O, ito ‘yung application na ginawa ko, di ito mate-trace.” ‘Yun ang gagawin nila so kahit ma-takedown ‘yung isang link or isang application na ‘yun, gagawa sila ulit kasi madali lang naman gumawa ng mga application.
The same rin kay Twitter, nag-request na tayo pero actually ngayon, wala pang reply si Twitter so ang ginagawa lang namin is entrapment.
As far as Facebook is concerned, di sila ano, basta mag-request kami at ma-satisfy namin ‘yung requirements nila, walang problema. Binibigay nila lahat.
Nagkaroon din ng hakbang si Facebook so automatic. Dahil lang sa sobrang dami, hindi rin ma-monitor lahat ni Facebook. ‘Yung online lapagan kasi parang hindi natin ma-justify kung talagang minor ‘yung pino-post nila kasi… ang nasa legal age, okay lang [ma-post]. Kaya nga nag-develop si Facebook ng ire-report mo ‘yung post na ‘yun, so isa ‘yun sa countermeasures ni FB.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: How OSEC is done may have been changing with the times, but it isn’t the only thing adapting to current circumstances.
Vic Lorenzo, NBI: What we have seen is ‘yung evolution nung OSEC, from international naging local. [There are] actually so many reports right now that there are so many local sexual predators operating. Because of the pandemic, we are confined [to] the four corners of our home.
We have online classes, and children are confined in the four corners of their home and they’re just talking with the computers or digital gadgets that they have. And they use, massively, social media. This is an opportunity for local sexual predators to victimize children. Children are being manipulated in providing OSEC materials.
They will befriend that child. They will try to ask for photos in exchange for money. But when a sexual predator is situated locally, there is a great danger that it could transcend from virtual to physical. They could easily meet up. And when they meet up, some of them were raped. So that’s another danger.
Parents, sometimes, could no longer monitor the activities of their children online. So everybody could be a victim. Every minor could produce an OSEC material because we have access to the internet.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: This podcast was written by Cherry Salazar of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and produced by ABS-CBN, with support from the Judith Neilson Institute.
Neil Jayson Servallos of PCIJ and the UST Journalism School and Chiara Zambrano of ABS-CBN conducted the interviews.
If you want to learn more about the extent of OSEC and efforts being done to curb it, you may check PCIJ’s website, pcij.org, for our complementary multi-part investigative report.
The ABS-CBN News Channel will also premiere a documentary on this issue in June.
If you found this podcast informative, feel free to share it on social media and subscribe to our channel. Follow us, too, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at pcijdotorg.
Stay tuned for the next episodes of “On The Record." This has been Chiara Zambrano. Thank you for listening.