Cambodian Prime Minister quits Facebook after Oversight Board review

Hun Sen viewing phone

File photo of Hun Sen viewing his phone during a meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo by Leng Len/VOA Khmer

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen deleted his official Facebook account after Meta's Oversight Board recommended his account be suspended for six months after he shared a video inciting violence. His account had 14 million followers and was frequently used to share government announcements and documents.

During a public speech on January 9, 2023, Hun Sen rejected the opposition's claim that the ruling party cheated in the 2022 local elections. He added that the opposition can choose between the “legal system” and a “stick” as he threatened to send “gangsters to beat” those who are spreading the cheating allegations.

Hun Sen has been in power for nearly four decades and his son is ready to succeed him after the main opposition party competing in the July 23 election was barred from participating due to a technicality around registration. A report revealed how several members of the opposition were attacked after Hun Sen threatened to use violence against those making false claims about the ruling party.

The the speech was streamed live on Facebook and many users reported it for violating the community standards of the company. Meta, which owns Facebook, decided to retain the video because of its “newsworthiness”:

Meta prohibits threats of violence on our platforms in order to prevent potential offline harm. However, a newsworthiness allowance may be granted when the content has high public interest value, particularly when it may warn of future government action and outweighs the risk of harm.

But the issue was elevated as a case to be reviewed by the Oversight Board, an independent oversight body funded by Meta. Its decision to overturn Meta's earlier action and recommend the suspension of Hun Sen’s Facebook and Instagram accounts was announced on June 29.

The Oversight Board has overturned Meta’s decision to leave up a video on Facebook in which Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen threatens his political opponents with violence. Given the severity of the violation, Hun Sen’s history of committing human rights violations and intimidating political opponents, as well as his strategic use of social media to amplify such threats, the Board calls on Meta to immediately suspend Hun Sen’s Facebook page and Instagram account for six months.

It explained why Meta's earlier decision was wrong:

The Board finds that Meta was wrong to apply a newsworthiness allowance in this case, as the harm caused by allowing the content on the platform outweighs the post’s public interest value.

It also urged Meta to review its policies involving public figures especially those who are undermining the right to freedom of expression:

The Board urges Meta to clarify that its policy on restricting the accounts of public figures is not limited solely to single incidents of violence and civil unrest, but also applies to contexts in which citizens are under continuing threat of retaliatory violence from their governments.

Hun Sen Facebook page

Screenshot of Hun Sen's deleted Facebook page. Source: YouTube video of RFA Khmer

Without mentioning the Oversight Board's decision, Hun Sen said he has already created accounts on Telegram and Tiktok. During a public event, he even threatened to ban Facebook in Cambodia.

After the speech, he immediately clarified that he would not ban the popular social media platform. “I am not stupid to shut down Facebook when people have been using it for connection and to get this news,” he said in a video statement.

In 2022, there were more than 11 million Facebook users out of Cambodia’s 16.5 million population. The deletion of Hun Sen’s account will affect access to some government records and other vital documents since the Prime Minister has been actively using the platform for many years to interact with his constituents and inform the public about state policies.

Facebook may still be accessible in the country but the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications announced that it will end contracts and partnerships with the company.

The Ministry hereby orders Facebook representatives to leave Cambodia and cease all forms of their activities, including the company’s representation, contact with the Royal government and partnership in private sector and so on.

The Ministry found irregularities related to Facebook, including the existence of fake accounts, the risk of losing private data, the use and collection of personal information, the spread of fake news, the lack of accountability and transparency, and interferences into the country’s internal politics.

The Hun Sen government has frequently used allegations of “foreign collusion” to detain critics, disqualify opposition parties, and invalidate reports highlighting the suppression of civil liberties in the country.

Journalist Kevin Doyle noted the irony that it was Meta’s Oversight Board that was able to seek some form of accountability from Hun Sen:

The International Commission of Jurists welcomed the Oversight Board’s decision since it could set a precedent for similar cases.

This decision sends a clear message that political leaders do not enjoy higher protections for any incitement to violence by virtue of their status alone, as the same rules must apply to all users.

Meanwhile, a Cambodian analyst urged Facebook to also look into the Facebook posts of an exiled opposition leader because of their “violent” and “racist” content.

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