SA a fertile online hunting ground for child predators

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 26 Aug 2019

South Africa has become a fertile hunting ground for online child sexual predators who increasingly use the Internet and social media to target minors.

This is according to the Film and Publication Board (FPB), which says although it is taking the war to the predators with the help of law enforcement, there are still a lot of perpetrators operating undercover in SA.

One of the FPB’s mandates is to protect children from sexual exploitation in media content in order to educate the broader South African society to make informed choices.

In an e-mail interview with ITWeb last week, Lynette Kamineth, communications manager at FPB, said the organisation augments the content regulation role it plays within SA with a programme of community outreach and public education.

This includes advocating for age ratings and consumer advisories, assigned by the FPB to films and games, to be implemented for the protection of children, she says.

“In addition, due to the increasing frequency of online content consumption in South Africa, the organisation campaigns against harmful content in the digital and social media space by raising awareness among the public of cyber safety.”

According to Kamineth, the Films and Publications Act makes the exploitation of children in pornographic material illegal in SA.

This includes the creation, possession and distribution of such child sexual abuse material (CSAM), she adds.

Mpumalanga killings

The board frequently engages with the community to raise awareness on the proliferation of online child sexual predators.

Public education engagements, such as the one held on 21 August in the Masoyi community of Mpumalanga, focuses on the importance of adhering to age ratings and moderating what children are exposed to in films and games; child grooming and CSAM; as well as cyber safety education aimed at creating responsible digital citizens, Kamineth says.

Kamineth says the FPB initiated an engagement with the women of the Masoyi community in Mpumalanga in response to a series of killings of women in that area, one of which was related to a female victim being lured on Facebook.

A partnership with a local Mpumalanga NGO, Iris Dignity, was formed. This NGO campaigns against human trafficking and works to rehabilitate victims.

In addition, the local office of the National Prosecuting Authority, the SA Police Services, the Commission for Gender Equality and the Department of Social Development joined the FPB and Iris Dignity to provide more than 100 women with a background on the law in SA around the Internet and social media; the dangers that exist online for the exploitation and victimisation of women and children; as well as practical advice and tips on how to stay safe online, and to protect children.

Shocking stats

She notes 101 cases were referred to the FPB in 2018/19 through its hotline Web site and via client support services; a 78% decrease over 2017/18.

She adds that 23 cases were referred to the FPB by the police, an increase of 28% year-on-year, attributed to improved relationships, increased awareness and better expertise in analysis of child pornography and CSAM.

Most cases referred to the FPB were from Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, she reveals.

“We assisted law enforcement with the analysis of 16 cases containing 239 922 content elements. Eighteen cases were referred to other INHOPE [the International Association of Internet Hotlines]-affiliated hotlines, the same number as in 2017/18.

“A total of 197 calls reported to the FPB on alleged CSAM were escalated to INHOPE between 2015 and 2019. Most of these were hosted internationally in USA, followed by the Netherlands.”

The FPB is the only African content regulator that is a member of INHOPE – a global network of hotlines that deals with illegal content online and is committed to eradicating CSAM from the Internet.

INHOPE member hotlines offer the public a way of anonymously reporting Internet material, including child sexual abuse material they suspect to be illegal.

The hotline ensures the matter is investigated and if found to be illegal, the information will be passed to the relevant law enforcement agency and, in many cases, the Internet service provider hosting the content.

“As the digital space is a borderless environment, networks of perpetrators can operate largely undercover. This means perpetrators might not even be in the same country as their victims, and the CSAM can be shared peer-to-peer across multiple locations,” says Kamineth.

“Due to issues of legal jurisdiction, membership of INHOPE ensures the FPB can link into these international networks and contribute to such content being taken down from digital sites or the prosecution of perpetrators.”

Case files

She points out that an FPB team of child protection officers and online compliance monitors works with the police to interrogate suspicious materials (images and videos) and determine whether children have been exploited in its creation.

The case files built up by these officers assist national prosecutors to build cases against alleged perpetrators. FPB officials act as expert witnesses in these cases, she notes, adding the team works with the Department of Social Development to provide counselling for traumatised victims and their families.

Some cases the FPB has assisted in content analysis in recent years include:

  • Bisho case – the perpetrator was sentenced to direct three life sentence.
  • Gauteng cases – the perpetrators sentenced to direct seven years and five years’ imprisonment respectively.
  • Boksburg case – the perpetrator sentenced to direct 32 life sentence plus 170 years.
  • Belville case – the perpetrator was sentenced to life imprisonment.
  • Plettenberg case – the perpetrator was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment
  • George case – the perpetrator was sentenced to 12 years.

Campaigning against CSAM is improved through public education and awareness on what it is and how to report it, Kamineth says.

Members of the public can report suspected incidences of CSAM through the FPB or by calling 0800 148 148.

“It is only through an informed and vigilant society that the FPB, law enforcement and prosecutors can work towards eradicating CSAM,” she concludes.