A post on Facebook by Cambodian government official Duong Dara, which includes an image of the official Facebook page of Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen before he deleted his account, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on June 30, 2023. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
Cambodia has barred Meta’s Oversight Board members from entering the country after the board called for the suspension of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook account for inciting violence in a speech video.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation designated 22 people as “persona non grata” and ordered them to leave the country within 48 hours of the statement’s release on Tuesday.
The ministry accused the board of interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs due to their recommendation to suspend Hun Sen’s Facebook account, calling the board’s decision “political in nature.”
“It intends to obstruct the freedom of the press for the citizens of Cambodia and the right to receive credible news from a leader whom they support and admire,” the ministry stated.
The oversight board, a quasi-independent body in charge of reviewing content moderation decisions, overturned Meta’s ruling on June 30 to leave up Hun Sen’s video on Facebook posted on Jan. 9.
In the one-hour, 41-minute live broadcast on Facebook, Hun Sen refuted allegations that his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) stole votes during last year’s local elections and asked his political opponents to choose between the “legal system” and “a bat.”
Hun Sen warned that he would “gather CPP people to protest and beat you up” or even send thugs to the accusers’ residences. The live broadcast was kept as a video and viewed around 600,000 times.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook, first decided to leave the post up due to its newsworthiness. However, the board asked Meta to have the post removed, citing 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.”
Hun Sen has since deleted his Facebook page, which had amassed over 14 million followers. He switched to the Telegram messaging app and garnered up to 300,000 followers on Chinese video platform TikTok.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) takes selfies with a supporter during the inauguration ceremony of the Bakheng-1 water treatment plant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on June 19, 2023. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
In his public address on June 30, Hun Sen warned his political opponents and Meta against underestimating his “strategy” and reminded them of his ability to permanently ban Facebook in Cambodia.
“I deleted yesterday my Facebook account, which has 14 million followers, and the opposition is happy. Don’t forget, if I issue an order, Facebook will be closed in Cambodia, and you will be the losers,” he said.
“But that is not the way Hun Sen functions. Do not underestimate Hun Sen’s strategy,” Hun Sen added. “This is to warn the foreigners that I will shut down Facebook if you are arrogant. I will shut down Facebook in Cambodia for a short time or permanently.”
Shortly after, Hun Sen backtracked his remarks, saying that shutting down the platform would be “ignorant” given its significance as a communication tool for the people, The Phnom Penh Post reported.
Hun Sen said he would terminate Facebook’s representation in the country instead.
“I understand my compatriots very well. Facebook is their popular means of communication and news sharing and a lot of people rely on the platform for their businesses. So, I’m not foolish enough to cut off their lifeline,” he said.
In February, Hun Sen ordered the shutdown of Voice of Democracy (VOD), one of the few independent news sites in the country, over VOD’s report claiming that Hun Sen’s son had authorized the provision of $100,000 in aid to quake-hit Turkey, which exceeded his authority.
The U.S. Embassy in Cambodia said that it was “deeply troubled by the abrupt decision” of the Cambodian government to shut down VOD, which it said had provided “fact-based reporting” for over 20 years.