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Cambodian opposition leader brings Facebook battle to California court

Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Since 2014, 15 people have been arrested in the country over Facebook posts, according to a recent investigation by BuzzFeed News.

"Where Cambodians have lost here is in restrictions in online speech," said Sebastian Strangio, the author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia." "(Hun Sen's party) has been extending all the informal and formal media controls that it's had offline -- in newspapers, radio -- and extending them to the online sphere. It can't go after Facebook, so it's going after the users."

Hun Sen has 9.4 million likes on his Facebook page, which mainly depicts him snapping selfies with supporters and spending time with his family. By one metric, he's the thirdmost popular world leader on the platform after India's Narendra Modi and President Trump, according to the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller.

In 2016, Sam accused Hun Sen of purchasing fake likes from "click farms" in the Philippines and India, a practice that Facebook has said it does not condone. Hun Sen denied the allegation -- "If I could buy India, I must be really strong," he said at the time -- and sued Sam for defamation.

Thursday's petition also alleges that Hun Sen also published a death threat against Sam on the platform, violating its user guidelines.

Although Hun Sen's government has shuttered independent media, it has allowed far-right, government-aligned news outlets to thrive. The website Fresh News, often equated to the U.S.' Breitbart News, often vilifies opposition figures and dissidents while touting the party line. It has 2.4 million likes.

"Facebook has demonstrated its potential to help improve information-sharing and transparency in countries like Cambodia," Sam's attorney, J. Noah Hagey, said in a statement. "The issues raised in the petition ask fundamental questions about Facebook's role in the democratic process, including how it will react when being misused by repressive regimes."

Sam's case hinges on a so-called Section 1782 discovery, named for a U.S. statute that stipulates that if an American company is involved in a legal proceeding in another country, a litigant can apply to a U.S. court for evidence that could be used in that proceeding.

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Sam faces several lawsuits in his home country. In January, he was charged with inciting and demoralizing the military after he suggested -- in a video posted to Facebook -- that Cambodian soldiers would not obey orders to shoot civilians. (Hun Sen called the comment a "declaration of war.")

In 2016, Sam protested the killing of Kem Ley, a prominent political analyst who was gunned down at a Caltex gas station that July. Although the killer, Oueth Ang, is in jail, many Cambodians suspect that the killing was a political assassination and that its architects have not been brought to justice. A Cambodian court found Sam guilty of defamation and incitement for calling the killing "an act of state-sponsored terrorism."

BraunHagey and Borden used the Section 1782 statute to obtain surveillance tapes from U.S. energy giant Chevron, which owns the gas station where Kem Ley was shot. The Cambodian government is not known to have acted on the additional evidence.

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