Cambodia PM Hun Sen accused of inciting violence on social media

Meta oversight board recommends that Hun Sen’s Facebook and Instagram accounts be suspended for six months for breaking rules on making violent threats.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures during a press conference at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on September 17, 2021, as the country begins vaccinating children aged between six and 12. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / POOL / AFP)
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures during a press conference in Phnom Penh in 2021 [File: Tang Chhin Sothy/pool via AFP]

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has been accused of inciting violence against his political opponents on Facebook, prompting an oversight board for the social media platform to recommended that his Facebook and Instagram accounts be immediately suspended for six months.

A board of experts for Meta Platforms Inc, which issues binding content moderation decisions for the company’s Facebook and Instagram platforms, announced on Thursday that Facebook content moderators had erred by allowing a livestreamed speech by Hun Sen, in which he threatened political opponents, to remain on his Facebook page.

The “newsworthiness” of Hun Sen’s threatening comments was not a valid reason to allow his speech to remain on Facebook, the board said, adding that the platform had amplified Hun Sen’s incitement to violence ahead of the country’s July 23 national election by allowing the speech to remain online.

“Hun Sen uses social media to amplify threats against his opponents, spreading them more widely and causing more harm than he would be able to do without access to Meta’s platforms,” the board wrote in its 26-page report, calling the Cambodian leader’s behaviour a “serious breach”.

“Hun Sen’s use of the platforms to incite violence against his political opposition, taken in the context of his history, his government’s human rights abuses, and the upcoming election combine to require immediate action,” the board added.

FILE PHOTO: A person uses a smartphone to look at the Facebook page of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, during breakfast at a restaurant in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia October 7, 2015. Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen is taking a belated leap into the digital age in a bid to court young, urban voters as he tries to fend off unprecedented competition from the opposition after three decades in power. The former Khmer Rouge soldier has started to enthusiastically embrace Facebook for the first time, coming round to the platform after almost losing a 2013 election when the opposition won a surge of support online. Hun Sen's Facebook, which how has 1.2 million "likes", carries images and videos of new infrastructure and credits him with Cambodia's speedy economic development. To match story CAMBODIA-SOCIALMEDIA/ Picture taken October 7, 2015. REUTERS/Samrang Pring/File Photo
A view of Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook page [File: Samrang Pring/Reuters]

Meta has agreed to remove the video of the original, livestreamed speech, Reuters news agency reported. The social media company now has 60 days to decide whether it will accept the board’s recommendation and suspend Hun Sen’s Facebook and Instagram accounts.

In the controversial speech livestreamed in January, Hun Sen railed against people who he said had accused his ruling Cambodian People’s Party of stealing votes in local elections last year. Hun Sen said that his critics had a choice between facing the court or being beaten with “a stick”.

“Either you face legal action in court, or I rally [CPP] people for a demonstration and beat you up,” Hun Sen said.

The video of his speech received about 600,000 views, according to Meta.

The recommended suspension, if carried out, would place Hun Sen among the few world leaders sanctioned by the social media giant for inciting violence on its platform. Most notably former US President Donald Trump was suspended from Facebook and Instagram for two years in 2021 for praising the actions of the Capitol Hill rioters.

Facebook remains extremely popular in Southeast Asia and Cambodia, and Hun Sen – who has ruled Cambodia with an iron grip for 38 years – has been an avid user of social media to spread his authoritarian political messaging.

Hun Sen has some 14 million followers on Facebook, though questions have been raised regarding the provenance of his huge online audience.

The Cambodian leader also appeared to preempt his possible suspension on Wednesday evening, posting on his Telegram channel that he would temporarily stop using Facebook and would, instead, use Telegram, where he has about 860,000 followers. He also said that he would create a TikTok account to connect with young people. Pro-government media quickly shared the QR codes for the accounts.

Hun Sen did not mention the Meta board’s investigation of his account for incitement to violence.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told Al Jazeera that the Meta board’s recommendation was “long overdue” and its ruling on Hun Sen was “the sort of message Meta should be sending to authoritarians in the region”.

“This kind of clear incitement to cause physical harm is precisely where Meta should be drawing the line,” Robertson said.

“The real problem in the region is no institutions or organisations ever hold the likes of Hun Sen accountable for his words and actions, so it’s entirely appropriate for Facebook to make it clear they are a global platform with international standards not beholden to local dictators like Hun Sen,” he said.

Aim Sinpeng, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney specialising in Southeast Asian digital politics, said that Meta had previously avoided moderating the comments of political leaders in the region.

“I’m not sure why Hun Sen was targeted,” Sinpeng told Al Jazeera, adding that former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte had used Facebook in a manner similar to the Cambodian leader and was not sanctioned.

“This is, in my view, something Meta has to tread carefully [with] to make sure it won’t appear to be ‘picking on’ a poor country but at the same time wanting to show strong support for human rights,” Sinpeng said.

Source: Al Jazeera