Stringent law needed to curb digital pornography

In September 2014, a 21-year old woman reported to Bumthang police that her boyfriend had made a sex video of her and circulated via WeChat. The video was made in June 2012 without consent. The suspect was convicted.

In another incident a 20-year-old woman lodged a complaint with Pasakha police in Phuentsholing stating that her boyfriend had distributed their sex clip in WeChat. Her cousin sister informed her that a pornographic clip of hers had gone viral. The suspect was arrested. He later confessed to the crime saying he distributed the clip to his friends under the influence of alcohol. The 24-year-old man was convicted by the Phuentsholing dungkhag court.

Several locally made amateur pornographic clips were circulated in 2014 causing an outrage among the general public. Voices were raised on social media and authorities called to attention. A few arrests were made. An online petition signed by over 2,000 people demanding strict laws on such sexual materials was submitted to former Prime Minister Dasho Tshering Tobgay. Nothing, however, came out of submission and the hullaballoo soon settled down.

Most of the victims are women. They are targeted with revenge porn or leaked pornographic clips, made with or without consent or using hidden cameras. Cellular devices and Internet has made producing and circulation of such pornographic clips, with or without consent, easy.

The Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) registered 17 cases of computer pornography from 2007 to May 2019.

Computer pornography is a distribution of an obscene photograph or picture on the computer or over the Internet, according to the Penal Code of Bhutan.

These clips, about one to five minutes long, mostly reveal the faces of women. Some seem to be made with consensus of both partners, while some seem to be shot using hidden cameras.

The figures, police official said, can be more than the reported cases. From the reported cases, 13 were convicted while two have been forwarded to Office of Attorney General (OAG) and one was withdrawn.

The clips are circulated using the popular social media app, WeChat. According to sources WeChat groups like Local Ema Datshi and PokPok Chek have about 270 men and women sharing and receiving Bhutanese pornographic clips. The groups also share international clips.

Sources also said that about a dozen Bhutanese amateur porn clips were shared in at least two international porn websites. One clip had over 2,200 views.

A 40-year-old private firm employee said he was shocked to learn about and see Bhutanese amateur pornographic clips on the international porn sites.

“I usually watch to see if I know the girl in the video and am a member of a WeChat group created solely to share such clips,” he said, “My wife receives clips from her friends as well.”

Sources said pornographic clips continue to be generated and shared, mostly in closed groups in WeChat.

Making and sharing of pornography is illegal in Bhutan.

Section 476 of the penal code states that if a person publishes and distributes an obscene photograph or picture on the computer or over the Internet, a crime of computer pornography has been committed. It is a misdemeanor nature and the defendant is liable for a sentence of one to three years in prison. The offence is compoundable. A thrimthue (compensation) can be paid in lieu of imprisonment term.

Colonel Tshewang Rinzin with Royal Bhutan Police’s Crime Branch said there is law.  “People have to be aware of it and refrain from doing and getting involved in such acts,” he said.

The complainants (usually the victim), he said, were usually informed by friends or relatives who came across or heard about the clips.

Colonel Tshewang Rinzin said suspects are often given counseling. “Most time people are ignorant of the law,” he said.

Pema Choki, a social worker and core volunteer with Respect Educate Nurture Empower Women (RENEW), said law does not protect the women.  “Women are considered sex objects and usually the one making the video turns out to be a man,” she said. “Owing to the non-severity of the penance, the crime continues.”

The issue of amateur pornography, she said, would be easier to curb with stricter laws and severe punishment.

Jigme Wangdi, Director of Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA), said the authority is not aware of such contents being shared in Wechat. “The communication is private in nature, unless you are in the group,” he said. “It is impossible to check what is shared privately between individuals or in a closed group.”

However, he said, sharing pornographic content is punishable by law and the law enforcement agencies have been acting on it. “The Rules on Content prohibits dissemination of such content and is punishable by law,” he said.

Jigme Wangdi said there was a lack of advocacy or awareness about the law.  “We have all the required laws but we could work further to create awareness among ICT users,” he said.

“BICMA as a regulatory body for ICT and media could look into experiences from other countries to resolve the issue.”

He also said advocacy has been carried out before but they can collaborate with other agencies to be more effective.

Member of Parliament Tshewang Lhamo, who is also the chairperson for Legislative Committee, said stringent laws could have bigger impact. “However, if people are not responsible, they will continue to commit the same act,” she said.

She also said that perpetrators also needed help. “Pornography is something they are addicted to, like getting addicted to drugs,” she said. “In reality perpetrators also need counseling besides being convicted.”

She also said that more efforts had to be put in creating awareness and advocating against creating and circulating pornographic clips.

Member of Parliament Ugyen Dorji of Dewathang-Gomdar constituency said there are two ways to tackle the issue. “Legal embargo would cure the symptoms but not the root cause,” he said, adding education and advocacy were imperative to tackle the root cause. “We need to educate our society that it’s both illegal and unethical.”

Besides, Dr Chencho Dorji, a psychiatrist, said pornography is detrimental to one’s mental, emotional and sexual health and can be a major threat to marriage, family life, children, individual happiness and social stability.

“Among couples affected by one spouse’s addiction, two-thirds experience a loss of interest in sexual intercourse and maintaining good family relations,” he said.

Meanwhile, RENEW has not received any case pertaining to pornography till date. It has however has been sensitizing and advocating on sexual offences such as sexual harassment and incest, including child sexual offences.

“While the context is criminal in nature, we would make referral to the competent authority and RENEW provides psycho-social counseling to victims to overcome the trauma,” said Dechen Choki, legal officer with RENEW.

A study by United Nations Children’s Fund Bhutan and National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) revealed that 20% of children aged 13-17 were exposed to pornography. The report also stated that 41.7% of boys and 28.7% of girls are exposed to digital pornography of other people.

Chencho Dema from Thimphu