Oversight Board Overturns Meta’s Decision in News Documentary on Child Abuse in Pakistan Case 

The Oversight Board has overturned Meta’s decision to take down a documentary video posted by Voice of America (VOA) Urdu, revealing the identities of child victims of sexual abuse and murder from Pakistan in the 1990s. Although the Board finds the post did violate the Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Nudity Community Standard, the majority find that a newsworthiness allowance should have been applied in this case. These Board Members believe the ongoing public interest in reporting on child abuse outweighs the potential harms from identification to the victims, who did not survive these crimes that took place 25 years ago. Broadly factual in nature and sensitive to the victims, VOA Urdu’s documentary could have informed public debate on the widespread issue of child sexual abuse, which is underreported in Pakistan. This case also highlights how Meta could better communicate to users which policies do and which policies do not benefit from exceptions.

About the Case

In January 2022, the broadcaster Voice of America (VOA) Urdu posted on its Facebook page an 11-minute documentary about Javed Iqbal, who murdered and sexually abused approximately 100 children in Pakistan in the 1990s. The documentary, in Urdu, includes disturbing details of the crimes and the perpetrator’s trial. There are images of newspaper clips that clearly show the faces of the child victims along with their names, while other footage of people in tears could be relatives. The post’s caption mentions that a different film about the crimes had recently been in the news, and it also warns viewers about the documentary’s contents. This post was viewed about 21.8 million times and shared about 18,000 times.

Between January 2022 and July 2023, 67 users reported the post. Following both automated and human reviews, Meta concluded the content was not violating. The post was also flagged separately by Meta’s High Risk Early Review Operations system because of its high likelihood of going viral. This led to human review by Meta’s internal staff with language, market and policy expertise (rather than by outsourced human moderation). Following escalation internally, Meta’s policy team overturned the original decision to keep the post up and removed it for violating the Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Nudity policy. The company decided not to grant a newsworthiness allowance. Meta then referred this case to the Board.

Key Findings

The majority of the Board find that Meta should have applied the newsworthiness allowance to this content, keeping the post on Facebook. The Board finds the post violated the Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Nudity Community Standard because the child abuse victims are identifiable by their faces and names. However, for the majority, the public interest in reporting on these child abuse crimes outweighed the possible harms to the victims and their families. In coming to their decision, the majority noted that the documentary had been produced to raise awareness, does not sensationalize the gruesome details and, significantly, the crimes took place about 25 years ago, with none of the victims surviving. This passage of time is the most important factor because it means possible direct harms to the child victims had diminished. Meanwhile, the public interest in child abuse remains.

Experts consulted by the Board confirmed that child sexual abuse is prevalent in Pakistan, but incidents are underreported. The majority took note of expert reports on Pakistan’s track record of cracking down on independent media and silencing dissent, while also failing to prevent or punish serious crimes against children. This makes social media platforms necessary for reporting on and receiving information on this issue. In this case, the VOA Urdu documentary made an important contribution to public discussions.

A minority note that while the video raised issues of public interest, it was possible for those issues to be discussed in detail without showing the names and faces of the victims, and therefore the content should have been removed.

The Board expresses alarm at the length of time (18 months) it took for Meta to finally make a decision on this content, by which time it had been viewed 21.8 million times, and questions whether Meta’s resources for Urdu-language videos are sufficient. While the rarely used newsworthiness allowance – a general exception that can be applied only by Meta’s expert teams – was relevant here, the Board notes that no specific policy exceptions, such as raising awareness or reporting on, are available for the Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Nudity policy. Meta should provide more clarity to users about this.

Additionally, it could be made clearer to people in the public language of this policy what qualifies as identifying alleged victims “by name or image.” Had VOA Urdu received a more detailed explanation of the rule it was violating, it could have reposted the documentary without the offending images or, for example, with blurred faces of the victims, if this is allowed.

The Oversight Board’s Decision

The Oversight Board overturns Meta’s decision to take down the content and requires the post to be restored.

The Board recommends that Meta:

  • Create a new section within each Community Standard describing what exceptions and allowances apply. When Meta has specific rationale for not allowing certain exceptions that apply to other policies (such as news reporting or awareness raising), Meta should include that rationale in this new section.

For Further Information

To read the full decision, click here.

To read a synopsis of public comments for this case, please click here.

Return to News