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 264.63 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 kids, also said that around 20 per cent of internetusers 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 kids 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 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.