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Meta rejects its oversight board’s advice to suspend Hun Sen’s Facebook account

Facebook parent company Meta Platform Inc. this week rejected the advice of its oversight board to suspend Hun Sen’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, where the former Cambodian leader had threatened violence against political opponents.

Meta said in a statement on Monday that while it would remove the content that led to the review, it would not ban Hun Sen’s use of the site, citing the company’s “commitment to voice” in its protocol on restricting the accounts of public figures.

“Upon assessing Hun Sen’s Facebook Page and Instagram account, we determined that suspending those accounts outside our regular enforcement framework would not be consistent with our policies, including our protocol on restricting accounts of public figures during civil unrest,” the company said.

But Meta also said its protocol is not designed for situations where a history of state violence or human rights restrictions have resulted in ongoing restrictions on expressions for an indeterminate period of time.

“Applying the protocol in those circumstances could lead to an indefinite suspension of a public figure’s account, which (apart from fairness issues) could be detrimental to people’s ability to access information from and about their leaders and to express themselves using Meta’s platforms,” it said.

The company noted that in this case it had “applied appropriate account-level penalties associated with that action.”

Facebook is enormously popular in Cambodia, and Hun Sen, who ruled the country for 38 years, often uses it to communicate to the public and to attack political opponents. Hun Sen passed on rule to his son, Hun Manet, following elections in July that were deemed a sham. 

Board banned from Cambodia

The controversy surrounded a live video streamed on Hun Sen’s official Facebook page of a speech in January during which he made statements viewed as threats of violence against his political opponents. 

Meta initially referred the case to the oversight board because it said the matter “created tension between our values of safety and voice.” The board, which operates independently from Meta, advises the company on ethics issues.

On June 29, the oversight board ordered the removal of the video and called for an immediate suspension of Hun Sen’s Facebook and Instagram accounts for six months. It marked the first time that the oversight board instructed the company to shut down a government leader’s account, RFA reported. Hun Sen then called on his social media followers to switch to rival platforms TikTok or Telegram.

In response to Meta’s latest decision, Cambodia said Tuesday it would allow the California-based company to continue operating in the country, but banned the 22 members of the oversight board from visiting, accusing them of “interference into Cambodian affairs.”

“The decision reflects the integrity of contents posted on the official Facebook page of Samdech [honorific] Hun Sen,” it said.

Article19, a rights group that advocates for freedom of expression, declined to comment on the reversal and referred RFA to the International Commission of Jurists, or ICJ, an international human rights group based in Geneva, Switzerland. 

In March, the ICJ submitted a public comment to Meta’s oversight board concerning Hun Sen’s video, saying that the company had a responsibility to moderate content on its platforms in line with international human rights law and standards. 

Daron Tan, a legal adviser at the ICJ, told RFA that he could not comment on Meta’s latest decision, but that his organization was monitoring the company’s ongoing assessment of the feasibility of updating its newsworthiness allowance policy to state that content that directly incites violence is not eligible for this exception.   

“The newsworthy allowance has, to date, not been applied consistently or transparently,” Tan said in an email. “As we have repeatedly emphasized, discretionary exception should generally not be available for forms of expression that are prohibited under international human rights law, such as expression inciting violence.”

“It is especially critical to impose a restriction where there is a strong risk that the inciting words of a powerful actor like a Prime Minister may be acted upon,” Tan said.

Translated by Sovannarith Keo for RFA Khmer. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcom Foster.