Oversight board recommends Facebook suspend Cambodian premier's account for violent language

FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen claps during the 71st anniversary celebration of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) at its headquarters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, June 28, 2022. A quasi-independent review board has recommended that Facebook suspend that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sens Facebook and Instagram accounts for six months for using language that could incite violence. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith, File) (Heng Sinith, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

PHNOM PENH – A quasi-independent review board recommended Thursday that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ’s Facebook and Instagram accounts be suspended for six months for using language that could incite violence.

The Oversight Board, established three years ago by Meta, Facebook’s parent company, issued its nonbinding recommendation in a 26-page report. Separately, it overturned a ruling by Facebook’s moderators to allow a video on Hun Sen’s Facebook page of a January speech in which he decried opposition politicians who accused his ruling party of stealing votes. The ruling to remove the video is binding on Facebook.

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In the video, the prime minister said that "there are only two options. One is to use legal means and the other is to use a stick.”

He added that: “Either you face legal action in court, or I rally (the Cambodian) People’s Party people for a demonstration and (to) beat you up.” His remarks were spoken on Facebook Live and kept online as a video.

The board said its reached its recommendation to suspend his accounts due in part to "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.”

On Thursday, Hun Sen's Facebook account was unavailable and appeared to have been deleted or taken private, according to an automated message that was posted on the site. Meta confirmed it did not remove or suspend the account.

Facebook responded to the report with a brief statement saying it welcomed the board's decision and will comply with it by removing the offending content.

It added that it will review the board's recommendations, including the suspension of Hun Sen's accounts. Guidelines call for a public response to recommendations within 60 days — though if the account remains deleted, that point might be moot.

Hun Sen — who had been a devoted and active user of Facebook — a day earlier said he will no longer upload to the popular platform and will instead depend on the Telegram app to spread his message.

A canny and sometimes ruthless politician, Hun Sen has been Cambodia’s top leader for 38 years. He said he is making the platform switch because Telegram is more effective and makes it easier to communicate when he is traveling to countries that ban Facebook use — such as China, his government’s top international ally.

“Cambodia PM Hun Sen is finally being called out for using social media to incite violence against his opponents, and he apparently doesn’t like it one bit,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in an emailed statement Thursday.

Facebook, Robertson added, “dared to hold him accountable to their community standards.”

Sok Eysan, a spokesperson for Hun Sen’s ruling party, said he could not comment in detail because he did not know Facebook’s rules and regulations.

But he said that Hun Sen faces a double standard, because foreign-based media that broadcast attacks and what he described as false information about the prime minister and his family are allowed to operate unimpeded. Hun Sen, in contrast, could face a suspension.

Two levels of Facebook moderators had declined to recommend action against Hun Sen, judging first that he did not violate Meta’s community standard guidelines against violence and incitement.

They prohibit “threats that could lead to death” and “threats that lead to serious injury,” including “statements of intent to commit violence.”

On appeal, a more senior set of moderators ruled that despite the comments' provocative nature, Hun Sen’s position as a national leader made his remarks newsworthy and therefore not subject to punishment.

Three outside users appealed to the board to review the moderators’ rulings, as did Meta itself.

Social media critics have repeatedly raised concerns about political leaders using social media in a manner that could inflame and trigger violence in such countries as India and Myanmar. Former U.S. President Donald Trump was temporarily suspended from Facebook because of such concerns.

AP Technology Writer Barbara Ortutay in San Francisco contributed to this story.

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