A friend who lives in Zambia once told me that, before 21st century, cases of paedohiles were unheard of.Thanks to social media, there has been rise of anti-paedophile vigilantism in Zambia and Africa in general largely driven by a belief that the participants are filling a gap left by law enforcement agencies ineffectiveness which allows predatory paedophiles to run free in society. Vigilantes certainly succeed in generating confrontations with the men they have targeted, but they also raise worrying questions about how their approach can incite wrongdoing and affect the work of the authorities.Groups with different names in different countries have a common strategy. They will pose as a vulnerable child in a chatroom usually an underage girl, wait for an individual to instigate a sexualised conversation and then encourage a meeting in order to publicly expose them, often uploading a video of the confrontation on the internet.It is uncertain as yet, whether such vigilantism is supported by the public or whether activities are simply inflated by the oxygen of publicity via the social media. What is evident is that African countries are not alone in experiencing this emerging trend. The tactics employed by these groups raise serious ethical and moral questions about whether or not they are consistent with an acceptable concept of justice. In South Africa, online vigilantes justify their actions by exposing offenders and passing the information they collect on to the police. In Durban, vigilantes cite the fact that their actions were pivotal in convicting a number of offenders that otherwise would not have been brought to justice. The admissibility of the evidence obtained by these groups in a court of law can be questionable. It often lacks the necessary continuity and conclusive proof of wrongdoing required to secure a successful conviction.
Of course, this fact further frustrates the vigilantes and justifies their approach in their own minds.In some cases, law enforcement agencies and courts have, in principle, deliberately tried to avoid entrapment, so they are understandably concerned about vigilantism. The South African Police maintain that they are the only group equipped and empowered to “police” the online environment and that the public should simply pass any intelligence they have about suspected offenders to them. They argue that the unauthorised actions of vigilantes can unwittingly interfere with covert police operations into which long-term effort and resources have been invested.There is the question as to who is responsible when things go wrong. In Kenya, there have been recent examples of entrapped individuals committing suicide. Which raises a further question as to whether the vigilantes are going after the right people, or whether they are simply trapping the more vulnerable individuals.It would appear, from the ages of the avatars that vigilantes use to entice their quarry, that many of the individuals entrapped may not actually be paedophiles with a sexual interested in prepubescent children. Rather, they seem more likely to be ephebophiles who have an interest in post-pubescent youths, or hebephiles who are interested in pubescent children. While we should be in no doubt that they all have a sexual interest in the under-aged, each has a different psychological and behavioural profile and when their thoughts do turn in to criminal actions, all require some form of legal intervention. Some need help, others need prison because of the severity of their crimes and the need to protect the public from them.In my view, African countries are not quite at the point where online public involvement in policing starts to mission creep into a spy system where everybody ends up reporting each other’s behaviour. But security agencies need to resolve the questions raised by online anti-paedophile vigilantism before it reaches the point where due process and the concept of justice become largely irrelevant.