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Iran: Meta oversight board agrees to allow ‘death to Khamenei’ posts

Farsi phrase ‘marg bar Khamenei’ is a ‘political slogan, not a credible threat’ to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's life, says board
This cartoon, which depicts Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and reads 'it is forbidden to be a woman', was part of the post that was taken down, according to BBC Persian (BBC)

Meta’s oversight board has overturned a decision to remove a post containing the phrase “death to Khamenei” from Facebook, saying it was not a threat to the Iranian supreme leader’s life.

“In the context of the post, and the broader social, political and linguistic situation in Iran, ‘marg bar Khamenei’ [the original Farsi phrase] should be understood as ‘down with’,” the board, which is funded by Meta but operates independently, wrote in a decision on Monday. “It is a rhetorical, political slogan, not a credible threat.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has led the violent repression of protests in recent months, sparked by the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini on 16 September. The state has executed at least four people since demonstrations began.

The oversight board, sometimes referred to as Meta’s supreme court, was ruling on a July 2022 post that contained a cartoon of Khamenei. In it, his beard is a fist holding a chained, blindfolded woman wearing a hijab. The Farsi caption below reads: “marg bar” the "anti-women Islamic government" and “marg bar” its "filthy leader Khamenei".

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According to BBC Persian, the cartoon was originally published in 2008 on a blog called Badban.

The cartoon was posted in the run-up to Iran’s National Day of Hijab and Chastity, the board noted, “around which critics frequently organise protests against the government, including against Iran’s compulsory hijab laws”.

“The slogan 'marg bar Khamenei' has been used frequently during protests in Iran over the past five years, including the 2022 protests,” it added.

Meta urged to 'support users' voice'

The unrest in Iran created a now-familiar conundrum for Meta, which has often wavered in its treatment of violent political rhetoric on its platforms.

After Russia invaded Ukraine last year, for example, Meta introduced a temporary exemption to allow calls for death to Russian President Vladimir Putin, aiming to give users in the region space to express their anger over the war. It then reversed the decision.

Meta also has faced scrutiny over how its platforms were used to organise in the run-up to the 6 January attack on the US Capitol. Phrases like "kill them all" appeared in thousands of US-based Facebook Groups before the attack, including calls for violence against specific US political leaders.

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The company bans language that incites "serious violence" but aims to avoid overreach by limiting enforcement to credible threats, leaving ambiguity around when and how the rule applies.

The board wrote in its decision, for example, that “it is impossible to adopt a universal rule on” the use of “death to” slogans. “For example, ‘marg bar Salman Rushdie’ cannot be equated with ‘marg bar Khamenei’, given the fatwa against Rushdie and recent attempts on his life.

“Nor would ‘death to’ statements used during events such as the January 6 riots in Washington DC be comparable, as politicians were clearly at risk and ‘death to’ statements are not generally used as political rhetoric in English, as they are in other languages.”

The board added that “in the Iranian context… Meta must do more to respect freedom of expression, and permit the use of rhetorical threats. The Iranian government systematically represses freedom of expression and digital spaces have become a key forum for dissent. In such situations, it is vital that Meta supports users’ voice.”

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