Prime Minister Hun Sen warned Friday he could block access to Facebook in Cambodia, after the company said it would remove a video in which he threatened to beat up political opponents.
The warning came ahead of a July 23 election that has been widely dubbed a sham after authorities denied registration to the chief challenger to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Facebook announced Thursday it would remove one of Hun Sen’s videos in line with a ruling by the Oversight Board for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, which also recommended his account be suspended.
Tech experts characterised the move as a “turning point”.
The ruling said his speech contained “unequivocal statements of intent to commit violence” against opposition politicians.
Long a prolific Facebook user, Hun Sen announced Thursday night he had stopped using the platform and appeared to have deleted his account.
Speaking to garment workers in Pursat province on Friday, Hun Sen warned that he could block Facebook “for a short period or forever” in Cambodia to prevent exiled opposition politicians from communicating with the country’s citizens.
“Don’t be arrogant, you guys are staying overseas, you are using Facebook for communications, we could block Facebook,” he said, appearing to address exiled opponents.
He then urged Cambodians to download other social media platforms, including Telegram, TikTok, Line, Viber and Meta-owned WhatsApp on which it is more difficult to police content.
Hun Sen also accused Facebook of turning a blind eye to “insulting” remarks he claimed rivals had made against his wife and eldest son Hun Manet, who is widely seen as being groomed to take over the country’s leadership in the future.
– ‘A turning point’ –
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch said the saga was a “face-off between Big Tech and a dictator over human rights issues” that was “long overdue”.
Matthew Warren from Melbourne’s RMIT University Centre for Cyber Security Research said Meta was facing increasing pressure to hold politicians to account for their online behaviour.
“I do see it as a turning point,” he told AFP.
“It’s good Facebook is doing this but that it doesn’t stop the problem… because there is now a variety of platforms that politicians can use.”
Hun Sen now uses the Telegram app to relay his political messages to supporters, and TikTok to engage with youth.
Meta’s decision was better late than never, Warren added.
“What they are doing is showing that Meta can police content,” he said.
“The video is from January, which is six months ago, so it’s taken Meta a long time to deal with this situation. They haven’t been that agile.”
The Cambodian government put plans for a national internet gateway on hold last year, after an international backlash.
Warren said Hun Sen’s threat to block Facebook in Cambodia could revive the gateway plan, which would funnel all web traffic through a state-controlled entry point.
Samuel Woodhams, a digital rights researcher at Top10VPN, a British-based digital security advocacy group anticipated a spike in demand for virtual private networks (VPNs) in Cambodia.
VPNs allow people to skirt online censorship.
– ‘Back to books’ –
For many Cambodians, Facebook is considered the whole internet.
Hun Sen’s threat to block the platform received mixed reactions locally, with some pointing out that a ban would hurt small businesses, which use Facebook for sales.
“If Facebook is blocked, ties with the West will worsen. Bad officials will be happy,” a Facebook user posted.
Others supported the move.
“If Facebook is blocked, people will return to reading books. There won’t be headaches about immoral things. More than 10 years ago, we survived without Facebook. Close it down!” a Facebook user said.
Meta’s Oversight Board, whose decisions are binding, on Thursday recommended Hun Sen’s Facebook and Instagram accounts be suspended for six months due to the video filmed in January, in which he told opponents they would face legal action or a beating with sticks if they accused his party of vote theft in July’s national polls.
Hours later, Meta said it would comply with the decision to remove the video.
“We will conduct a review of all the recommendations provided by the board in addition to its decision, and respond to the board’s recommendation on suspending Prime Minister Hun Sen’s accounts as soon as we have undertaken that analysis,” it said in a statement.
After 38 years in power, Hun Sen is among the world’s longest-serving leaders.
Hun Sen’s party won every seat in the 2018 national election after the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved.