MUMBAI: On a busy afternoon in the southern Indian city of Visakhapatnam last month, a young man raped a destitute woman on a pavement. Many pedestrians walked by as he forced himself on the woman, but a few paused – to record the rape on their smartphones.
The police seized one cellphone – of the person who alerted them to the crime – but found he had already shared the video on social media, officers in Visakhapatnam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Women’s rights campaigners in India said countless rape videos circulate online with few of them reported to the police.
“I receive a dozen rape videos a day from people who are afraid of reporting the crime themselves,” said Sunitha Krishnan, a rape survivor and founder of the charity Prajwala.
As the country strengthens anti-rape laws and activists demand better safety for women on the street, public transport and in the workplace, sexual violence in India has moved online.
Krishnan lodged a petition in the Supreme Court in 2015 against rape videos circulating on social media, seeking action from the government and social media giants to end the menace.
Last month, the court asked the Indian government to report by December on the steps it will take to allow the safe and anonymous reporting of videos showing rape and child sexual abuse – as the country witnesses a surge in social media use.
“I had submitted nine rape videos to the Central Bureau of Investigation (India’s top crime-fighting agency). The investigation into these videos brought to light how big the problem is,” Krishnan said.
More than 750 cases related to obscene and sexually explicit content posted on the internet were registered with the India police in 2015, government data shows – but the official figures fail to reflect the prevalence of the crime, campaigners said.
In 2015, 35,000 rape cases were registered in India, an increase of 40 percent since 2012 when the fatal gang rape of a young woman on a bus in Delhi sparked a national outcry.
“We have (now) taken precautions (to stem sexual violence) but given the scale of digital sexual violence, I am not sure how effective they are,” said Asha Bajpai, professor of law at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
Videos for sale
Mobile internet users in India account for nearly 95 percent of the 400 million internet users in the country, which is the world’s second largest smartphone market, according to studies.
And with 241 million active users, India has the world’s highest number of people on Facebook and is the biggest Whatsapp market with over 200 million users.
“We don’t have data (to link rise in smartphone numbers with rape videos) but plenty of anecdotal evidence,” Anja Kovacs, director of the New-Delhi based Internet Democracy Project told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“When I speak to people who work on these issues, technology is involved in almost all the cases, particularly in gang rape cases where it (recording of the crime) is very common.”
Local media in India often carry reports of rapes that were recorded on mobile phones and circulated on Whatsapp. Last year, gang rape videos were found to be up for sale in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
“While sex or rape videos on Whatsapp are circulated to defame or threaten, many make these videos to sell them to porn portals,” said Kislay Chaudhury, whose cyber crime agency advises Delhi police and has a helpline for victims of online sexual violence.
When activist and rape survivor Krishnan received a gang rape video on her cellphone two years ago, she retched. She then got the video edited – removing the woman but retaining images of the eight rapists and uploaded it on YouTube to shame the attackers.
Two years on, however, she is hopeful that circulation of rape content on social media will become more difficult.
Responding to her petition against rape videos, India’s Supreme Court has made recommendations drawn up by a court-appointed committee including staff of Facebook and Whatsapp.
The court asked internet companies to provide technical support to law enforcement agencies investigating such crimes and to ensure warning messages pop up for key words people use to search for rape videos and child sexual abuse online.
It has also suggested a central body where all the complaints can be registered.
“There will be a good amount of deterrence to circulate offensive videos. This is the beginning,” Krishnan said.