Global Freedom of Expression

Oversight Board Case of Cambodian Prime Minister

Closed Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Electronic / Internet-based Communication
  • Date of Decision
    June 1, 2023
  • Outcome
    Oversight Board Decision, Overturned Meta’s initial decision
  • Case Number
  • Region & Country
    Cambodia, Asia and Asia Pacific
  • Judicial Body
    Oversight Board
  • Type of Law
    International Human Rights Law, Meta's content policies
  • Themes
    Political Expression, Facebook Community Standards, Violence And Criminal Behavior, ​​Violence and Incitement
  • Tags
    Facebook, Government or State Speech, Head of State / Government, Incitement, Meta Newsworthiness allowance, Oversight Board Content Policy Recommendation, Oversight Board Enforcement Recommendation, Oversight Board Transparency Recommendation, Political speech, Public Figures, Public Interest, Public safety, Rights of Others, Social Media, Threatening Statements

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Oversight Board overturned Meta’s decision to leave up a video on Facebook in which the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, made violent threats against his political opponents. The video, uploaded to Sen’s official Facebook page, was reported several times, but after review was deemed, by the company, as non-violating of Meta’s policies due to its newsworthiness. The Board held that Meta’s decision to grant the content the newsworthiness allowance was incorrect and that the video clearly violated Meta’s Violence and Incitement policy, requesting Meta to immediately suspend Hun Sen’s Facebook Page and Instagram account for at least six months. The Board also recommended Meta to update its system to prioritize content from state heads for immediate human review and exclude content that directly incites violence from its newsworthiness allowance policy.

*The Oversight Board is a separate entity from Meta and will provide its independent judgment on both individual cases and questions of policy. Both the Board and its administration are funded by an independent trust. The Board has the authority to decide whether Facebook and Instagram should allow or remove content. These decisions are binding, unless implementing them could violate the law. The Board can also choose to issue recommendations on the company’s content policies.



On 9 January 2023, Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, live-streamed a video of a one-hour 41-minute speech delivered by him in Cambodia’s official language—Khmer— on his official Facebook Page. In the speech, he pressed his political opponents—who asserted that his ruling party (CPP) “stole votes” in the country’s 2022 elections—, to “choose between the legal system and a bat” [p. 3] and stated that “they can choose the legal system” or he will “gather CPP people to protest and beat you up.” [p. 4] He also said “if you say that’s freedom of expression, I will also express my freedom by sending people to your place,” threatening to send gangsters to their homes [p. 4]. In addition to that, he named certain individuals, warning them to “behave” and that “he may arrest a traitor with sufficient evidence at midnight.” He then stated, later on in the video, that “we don’t incite people and encourage people to use force.” [p. 4]

The video was automatically uploaded to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook Page after the livestream ended, gaining around 600,000 views, and was shared by approximately 3,000 users almost 4,000 times.

Between 9 January and 26 January 2023, three users reported the video five times considering it violated Meta’s Violence and Incitement policy. Meta’s automated systems, which usually prioritize content for human review “based on its severity, virality and likelihood of violating content policies,” did not prioritize the content in the present case and closed these reports without human review. However, upon the users’ appeal, two human reviewers saw the content and deemed it non-violating. Nonetheless, the content was escalated to Meta’s “policy and subject matter experts.” [p. 4]

On 18 January 2023, the “policy and subject matter experts” decided that, while the video violated Meta’s Violence and Incitement policy, it was newsworthy, and thus gave it a “newsworthiness allowance”, which meant that the video could remain on the social media platform. The “newsworthiness allowance” permits content that would be considered as violating to remain on Meta’s platforms, because “its public interest value outweighs the risk of it causing harm.” [p. 4] One of the users who reported the content appealed Meta’s decision to the Board, and Meta made a separate submission to the Board as well.

Hun Sen is a 70-year-old former Khmer Rouge commander who had been in power since 1985 and was running for re-election in Cambodia’s July 2023 elections. His opposition was subjected to targeted political violence.  Over 30 opposition activists were attacked between 2017 and 2022, and some were killed under “deeply suspicious circumstances”. In 2015, Hun Sen said that if anyone protested his diplomatic visit to France, his opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), would face attacks. After protests took place, two opposition members of Cambodia’s parliament were “beaten by a mob and hospitalized with serious injuries.” [p. 4]

Multiple experts and organizations submitted public comments to the Board, expressing concern over Hun Sen and his government’s history of violence—such as the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, which issued several reports. In one of them from November 2021, this organization “expressed concern over the killing of a CNRP affiliate who was receiving threats,” weeks after Hun Sen threatened to “do what it takes to crack down [on] protests during Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship.” [p. 4] The Dangerous Speech Project also “warned that Hun Sen’s inflammatory language increases his audience’s willingness to commit and condone violence against his opponents.” [p. 4] Furthermore, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) submitted that “Hun Sen and the Cambodian authorities have systematically restricted human rights and fundamental freedoms through actions such as mass convictions of opposition party leaders on spurious charges and often in absentia.” [p. 5]

In 2020, Meta published its summary of a Human Rights Impact Assessment from Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) regarding Meta’s activities in Cambodia. BSR found that “Facebook was essential to freedom of information and expression in the country, where FM radio stations have been shut down and almost all print, radio and TV media are now controlled by the government.” [p. 5] Although the Board obtained the full report from BSR, Meta refused to submit it, classifying it as confidential. In response to questions from the Board, Meta stated that “it has not carried out a full assessment of Hun Sen’s Pages and accounts, but that the Page in question had a piece of content removed for breaching the Violence and Incitement policy in December 2022.” [p. 5]

Decision Overview

The main issue that the Oversight Board analyzed in the present case was whether Meta’s decision to leave up a video on Facebook, in which Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened his political opponents with violence, was consistent with Meta’s Violence and Incitement Community Standard, as well as its values and human rights responsibilities, in addition to whether the aforementioned content was permitted under Meta’s “newsworthiness allowance”.

The user who appealed Meta’s decision to the Board submitted that Hun Sen “had made such threats on previous occasions”, as he used Facebook to “threaten others with violence and to suppress opposition activity” in the time preceding the July 2023 general election. [p. 7]

Meta submitted that, when the video was escalated to policy and subject matter experts for review, it determined that two parts of Hun Sen’s speech violated the Violence and Incitement policy, but ultimately decided that it should remain on the platform under the “newsworthiness allowance”. Those parts referred to segments in which the then Prime Minister threatened political opponents with physical violence.

Meta explained that most of Sen’s speech was “related to governance or politics, such as Cambodia’s relationship with China and the COVID-19 pandemic,” while the two violating parts were only a few minutes long and fell within the “mid-severity tier of the Violence and Incitement policy.” [p. 7] Meta also submitted that political speech by a country leader “has high public interest value, particularly in an election year,” and that there is a public interest in “hearing warnings about potential violence by their government, particularly when those threats are not reported by local media.” [p. 7]

Meta additionally stated that, in the Cambodian context, the contested content in the present case “d[id] not involve ongoing violence or armed conflict,” [p. 8] which distinguished the case from other OSB cases, such as  Former President Trump’s suspension and Tigray Communication Affairs Bureau. Meta also said that it cannot prove Hun Sen’s intent at the time the speech was made. However, Meta noted that “given the CPP’s use of court proceedings to undermine political opponents, it appears that [Hun Sen] has chosen to use the courts rather than force, although this does not rule out the possibility of future violence.” [p. 8]

Furthermore, Meta stated that “threats to sue or use the legal system against opposition figures, standing alone, would not violate the Violence and Incitement policy, as they do not involve a physical threat of violence,” and that as a social media platform, it is “not in a position to independently determine whether a threat by the government to use legal process is undue.” [p. 9]

Meta argued that it found its decision to be consistent with international human rights, principles, and its own set of values. The company said that the “key factors” in reaching this conclusion were “the context” and “lack of imminent harm”, as the threat was “not connected to an ongoing armed conflict or violent event” and “non-specific” to certain people [p. 8]. Meta acknowledged the “challenge in handling threats that lack a nexus to imminent violence, but nevertheless, may contribute to a climate of fear when issued by an authoritarian government.” [p. 8] Hence, it referred the case to the Board as it involved “a challenging balance between the company’s values of ‘Safety’ and ‘Voice’”, and asked the Board for “guidance on how to evaluate such content, particularly in the context of an authoritarian regime where the right to access information is at stake.” [p. 5]

Compliance with Meta’s content policies

The Board decided that the video in the present case should be removed from the platform, as it included “unequivocal statements of intent to incite not only mid-severity violence (serious injury), but also high-severity violence (risk of death and other forms of high-severity violence),” [p. 8] which were a clear violation to the Violence and Incitement policy. The Board added that this was also supported by the broader political context, which makes those threats more credible. The Board additionally found that Hun Sen stating that “he does not incite people and encourage people to use force” contradicts the “clear message of the speech and is not credible.” [p. 8]

The Board found that in the present case, Meta’s argument regarding its inability to “independently determine whether a threat by the government to use legal process is undue,” [p. 9] was not correct as the threats did not stand alone. The Board highlighted that when a regime, “following through on threats of violence against its opposition,” uses Meta’s platforms, the company should depend on its regional teams to “assess whether threats to use the legal system against political opponents amount to threatening or intimidating with violence.” [p. 9] The Board explained that in Cambodia courts are usually controlled and used by the leading party to censor the opposition. Thus, Hun Sen’s threats of pursuing his opposition through the legal system, which include arresting the opposition at midnight, are “tantamount to a threat of violence.” [p. 9]

Furthermore, the Board decided that Meta’s decision to grant the contested content a newsworthiness allowance was wrong, as “the harms inherent in having the content on the platform outweigh the public interest in publicizing the speech.” [p. 9] The Board expressed concern over the fact that a political leader’s “sustained campaign of harassment and intimidation against independent media and the political opposition can be a factor within a newsworthiness assessment that leads to violating content not being removed and the account avoiding penalties.” [p. 9] Hence, the OSB concluded that Meta should not apply the newsworthiness allowance to government speech when “that government has made its own content more newsworthy by limiting free press.” [p. 9]

While the Board acknowledged that a “delicate balance must be struck when assessing violating speech made by political leaders,” [p. 9], and that the people of Cambodia should be aware of their leader threatening his opposition, the Board stated that the required balance cannot be satisfied when public figures exploit Meta’s platforms to directly incite violence. The Board also noted that the video was not posted by third parties who were reporting on the Prime Minister’s threats but by Hun Sen himself on his official Facebook account. That allowed Sen’s threats to spread more broadly, using Meta’s platforms to “amplify the threats and resulting intimidation.” [p. 9]

In addition, the Board found that the present case aligns with Meta’s policy on restricting the accounts of public figures who post violating content during ongoing violence or civil unrest. The Board added that Meta should explain “the extent of the situations in which the policy should apply.” [p. 10] The Board highlighted that violence is not only ongoing when “a single continuous violent incident or period of civil unrest is present,” but also in times of civil peace when political leaders threaten to use state-backed violence to prevent and suppress opposition, using “widespread repression and repeated acts of violence.” [p. 10]

Moreover, the Board explained that three criteria must be assessed to justify content restrictions under the aforementioned policy. Firstly, the severity of the violation and the public figure’s history on Meta’s platforms. Secondly, the public figure’s potential influence over, and relationship to, the individuals engaged in violence. Finally, the severity of the violence and related physical harm. While analyzing the first criterion, the Board found that “incitement to send violent mobs to people’s homes is at the highest level of severity.” [p. 10]

Regarding the second criterion, the Board highlighted that “Hun Sen is a Prime Minister with complete control over his party, the military, law enforcement and the judiciary of Cambodia,” [p. 10] and benefits from a high degree of loyalty from the population. [p. 10] For the OSB, Sen’s influence is demonstrated “by the fact that both this speech and previous incitements have resulted in violence being committed against his targets.” [p. 10]

About the final criterion, the Board found it was also met, as the speech in the present case instigated armed attacks, in addition to “the previous incitements that resulted in killings.” [p. 10]

The Board also observed that Hun Sen referred to at least one member of the political opposition by name, in contrast to what Meta said—that the threats were “non-specific”. Additionally, the OSB noted that Meta should take into consideration “the political context and human rights situation of the country when assessing behavior on the platform.” [p. 11] The OSB found that Hun Sen’s actions required immediate action by the platform, as the content in the present case was considered by the OSB as a “serious breach warranting an immediate suspension from Facebook and Instagram.” [p. 11]

Compliance with Meta’s human rights responsibilities

To assess if Meta’s actions complied with its obligations under the International Human Rights Law— regarding freedom of expression, the rights to vote and participate in public affairs, the right to peaceful assembly, the right to physical security, and the right to life, as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)—, the OSB applied the three-part test that is provided by Article 19 of the ICCPR. According to this test, restrictions to freedom of expression can be valid as long as they are prescribed by law (legality), pursue a legitimate aim, and are necessary and proportionate.

  1. Legality

Referencing the UN General Comment no. 34 (para. 25) and the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression (A/HRC/38/35, para. 46), the Board highlighted that Meta’s rules should be accessible and clear to both the people using Meta’s platforms and to content reviewers, so they can “have a clear guidance on their enforcement.” [p. 11]

As the Board noted, Meta’s Violence and Incitement Community Standard Policy aims: “to prevent potential offline harm that may be related to content on Facebook. While we understand that people commonly express disdain or disagreement by threatening or calling for violence in non-serious ways, we remove language that incites or facilitates serious violence. We remove content, disable accounts and work with law enforcement when we believe there is a genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety.”

Additionally, Meta’s policy on restricting public figures’ accounts applies when “standard restrictions may not be proportionate to the violation or sufficient to reduce the risk of further harm.” [p. 12]

In light of this, the Board held that Hun Sen and “those maintaining his social media presence” could have determined with no difficulty that the content in the present case violated the Violence and Incitement Community Standard policy. The Board explained that threatening opponents with the “bat” and with “being beaten up by partisans” was a clear violation of the policy, “especially in the context of an upcoming election.” [p. 11-12]

Furthermore, the OSB highlighted that Meta’s policy on restricting public figures’ accounts, which the Board found applicable in the present case, makes it clear that “severe violations from public figures leading to violence and physical harm, in a broader context of ongoing violence, warrant suspension.” [p. 12]

  1. Legitimate aim

For the Board, “prohibiting calls for violence and threats of arbitrary arrest on the platform” [p. 12] to ensure public safety, pursued a legitimate aim—i.e. protecting the rights of others to life (ICCPR, Article 6),  to physical security against arbitrary arrest and detention (ICCPR, Article 9 para. 1), to peaceful assembly (ICCPR, Article 21), and to vote and participate in public affairs (ICCPR, Article 25).

  • Necessity and proportionality

Upon analyzing the last part of the test, the Board decided that removing the content in the present case was a necessary and proportionate restriction that aligned with Meta’s human rights responsibilities as “the content poses imminent and likely harm.” [p. 12] To reach this conclusion, the Board relied on the six-part threshold test laid out in the UN Rabat Plan of Action.

The Board found that all six elements of this test (content, context, intent, extent of reach, status of the speaker, and likelihood of imminent harm) were satisfied in the case at hand, highlighting that the speaker, in this case, was the head of the Cambodian government—a public figure that “has significant reach and authority” whose “speech amounts to state action.” [p. 12] The Board also took into consideration that Hun Sen’s government reportedly used “both physical violence and the Cambodian court system to silence and persecute dissenters and opposition members.” [p. 12] The Board cited the Former President Trump’s suspension case to underscore that “these factors increase both the level of the risk of harm associated with his statements and the public interest in his remarks.” [p. 12]

Moreover, the Board observed that “the speech was made just over six months prior to the July 2023 parliamentary elections in Cambodia,” [p. 12] and that it covered matters of public interest, further discussion of the elections, and issues of national infrastructure—the kind of information which the Cambodian people could have access to through other means, “including other social media accounts and reporting of the speech that did not mention the threats.” [p. 12] However, the Board stated that the use of such terms as “bat”—which can clearly be understood from the context “as a reference to a weapon”—, “sending gangsters to [your] house” or “legal action including midnight arrests”, amounts to incitement to violence and “threats of arbitrary arrests to stifle political dissent and weaken the opposition.” [p. 12]

In addition, the Board rejected Meta’s description of the threats as “non-specific”, stating that “the threat was thrown into stark relief by the backdrop of an impending election and the identification of Hun Sen’s political opponents as its targets.” [p. 12] Taking into consideration the history of Hun Sen’s supporters’ violence and intimidation of political opponents, the Board also held that “any call for violence made by the Prime Minister will be credible and have a chilling effect.” [p. 12]

Regarding the proportionality of restricting the content, the Board decided that removing it in the present case was not sufficient to protect the rights of others, as “it does nothing to prevent future violations and incitement to violence.” [p. 12] Thus, the suspension of Hun Sen’s official Facebook Page and Instagram account was proportionate and necessary.


The Board said Meta should immediately suspend Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s official Facebook Page and Instagram account for at least six months, subject to Meta’s policy on restricting accounts of public figures.

Concerning content posted by heads of state, and senior members of the government, the Board also recommended the company to update its review prioritization systems to prioritize for immediate human review content that potentially violates the Violence and Incitement policy. The Board highlighted that in such cases Meta should publicly reveal the extent of the decision it takes regarding these posts and the reasoning behind it.

The OSB also recommended Meta to update its newsworthiness allowance policy—to exclude content that directly incites violence—, and its policy for restricting public figures’ accounts—to clarify that it applies to contexts in which citizens are “under continuing threat[s] of retaliatory violence from their governments” and that the policy is not restricted to “single incidents of civil unrest or violence.” [p. 13]

Further, the Board held that Meta should implement mechanisms to ensure a more accurate review of long-form videos, by using a product and/or changing operational guidelines (e.g. “use of algorithms for predicting the timestamp of violation, ensuring proportional review time with length of the video, allowing videos to run 1.5xor 2x faster.”) [p. 13]

Considering the aforementioned arguments, the Board overturned Meta’s original decision to leave up the content and required its removal.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Mixed Outcome

In this decision, the Board limited expressions that called for violence issued by Cambodia’s then Prime Minister. Through a careful balancing of conflicting rights—considering the risks the content entailed of engendering offline harm—, the Board concluded that Meta’s decision to keep the content online was wrong since protecting the rights of others, in this case, outweighed its public interest value. In doing so, the OSB referred to multiple human rights standards that justified proportionate limitations to freedom of expression, especially when considering Cambodia’s political context.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

Related International and/or regional laws

  • ICCPR, art. 19

    The Board referred to this provision to highlight the importance of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and when it can be restricted in light of international human rights standards.

  • UNHR Comm., General Comment No. 34 (CCPR/C/GC/34)

    The Board analyzed Meta’s human rights responsibilities, regarding the right to freedom of expression under Article 19 of the ICCPR and its general comment.

  • UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, report A/74/486 (2019)

    While employing the three-part test to assess if Facebook’s actions allowed expression to be limited, the Board referred to this report for guidance on the legality requirement.

  • Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, A/HRC/38/35 (2018)

    While employing the three-part test to assess if Facebook’s actions allowed expression to be limited, the Board referred to this report for guidance on the legality requirement.

  • OHCHR, Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (2011).

    The Board referenced the Rabat Plan of Action to assess when expressions can incite discrimination, violence, or hatred.

  • ICCPR, art. 21

    The Board referred to this Article to highlight Meta’s human rights responsibilities regarding the right to peaceful assembly.

  • ICCPR, art. 9

    The Board referred to this Article to highlight Meta’s human rights responsibilities regarding the right to physical security.

  • ICCPR, art. 6

    The Board referred to this Article to highlight Meta’s human rights responsibilities regarding the right to life.

  • ICCPR, art. 25

    The Board referred to this Article to highlight Meta’s human rights responsibilities regarding the right to participate in public affairs and the right to vote.

  • United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011)

    The Board referred to this instrument to highlight Facebook’s businesses’ human rights responsibilities.

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

According to Article 2 of the Oversight Board Charter, “For each decision, any prior board decisions will have precedential value and should be viewed as highly persuasive when the facts, applicable policies, or other factors are substantially similar.” In addition, Article 4 of the Oversight Board Charter establishes, “The board’s resolution of each case will be binding and Facebook (now Meta) will implement it promptly, unless implementation of a resolution could violate the law. In instances where Facebook identifies that identical content with parallel context – which the board has already decided upon – remains on Facebook (now Meta), it will take action by analyzing whether it is technically and operationally feasible to apply the board’s decision to that content as well. When a decision includes policy guidance or a policy advisory opinion, Facebook (now Meta) will take further action by analyzing the operational procedures required to implement the guidance, considering it in the formal policy development process of Facebook (now Meta), and transparently communicating about actions taken as a result.”

The decision was cited in:

Official Case Documents

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