UN condemns Twitter's decision to suspend journalists' accounts as EU threatens sanctions

SpaceX's Elon Musk waves while providing an update on Starship, on Feb. 10, 2022, near Brownsville, Texas, USA.
SpaceX's Elon Musk waves while providing an update on Starship, on Feb. 10, 2022, near Brownsville, Texas, USA.   -   Copyright  Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP, File
By Euronews  with AP & Reuters

The United Nations and the European Union have condemned Twitter's decision to suspend several journalists covering the social media platform and its new owner Elon Musk.

Reporters for The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and Voice of America were among those whose accounts were taken down. The official account for Mastodon, a decentralised social network billed as an alternative to Twitter, was also banned.

"We're very disturbed by the arbitrary suspension of accounts of journalists that we saw on Twitter," said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric. 

“The move sets a dangerous precedent at a time when journalists all over the world are facing censorship, physical threats and even worse".

Earlier on Friday, Věra Jourová, the European Commission vice-president for values and transparency, warned Musk that Twitter could soon face sanctions under new EU regulations.

The EU's Digital Services Act taking effect next year requires “respect of media freedom and fundamental rights," she tweeted

"Elon Musk should be aware of that. There are red lines. And sanctions, soon”.

Under the new EU rules, Big Tech companies would have to explain to European users why their accounts were suspended and give them a chance to challenge the decision. 

Violations could result in hefty fines of up to 6 per cent of global annual revenue, and repeat offenses could even result in a Europe-wide operating ban.

Twitter hasn’t explained to the journalists why it took down the accounts and made their profiles and past tweets disappear. But Musk took to Twitter on Thursday night to accuse journalists of sharing private information about his whereabouts that he described as “basically assassination coordinates”. 

He provided no evidence for that claim.

The sudden suspension of news reporters followed Musk’s decision on Wednesday to permanently ban an account that automatically tracked the flights of his private jet using publicly available data. 

That also led Twitter to change its rules for all users to prohibit the sharing of another person’s current location without their consent.

Several of the reporters suspended had been writing about that new policy and Musk's rationale for imposing it, which involved his allegations about a stalking incident he said affected his family on Tuesday night in Los Angeles.

The reason for suspending Mastodon's official account was unclear, though it had tweeted about the jet tracking account.

“Same doxxing rules apply to ‘journalists’ as to everyone else," Musk tweeted on Thursday. He later added: “Criticising me all day long is totally fine, but doxxing my real-time location and endangering my family is not”. 

“Doxxing” refers to disclosing online someone’s identity, address, or other personal details.

The Germany government criticised the suspensions. The Foreign Ministry tweeted that it's “got a problem” with not being able to follow the suspended accounts and added that “press freedom must not be switched on and off at will”.

Spokesman Christofer Burger said the ministry opened an account on Mastodon “to ensure we remain reachable".

The suspensions come as Musk makes major changes to content moderation on Twitter. He has tried, through the release of selected company documents dubbed as “The Twitter Files,” to claim the platform suppressed right-wing voices under its previous leaders.

If confirmed as retaliation for their work, this would be a serious violation of journalists’ right to report the news without fear of reprisal
Committee to Protect Journalists

He has promised to let free speech reign and has reinstated high-profile accounts that previously broke Twitter's rules against hateful conduct or harmful misinformation, but also said he would suppress negativity and hate by depriving some accounts of “freedom of reach”.

The nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists, which defends journalists around the world, said on Thursday night it was concerned about the suspensions.

"If confirmed as retaliation for their work, this would be a serious violation of journalists’ right to report the news without fear of reprisal,” the group said.

'Undermining free speech'

The Washington Post’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, called for technology reporter Drew Harwell’s Twitter account to be reinstated immediately. 

The suspension “directly undermines Elon Musk’s claim that he intends to run Twitter as a platform dedicated to free speech,” Buzbee wrote. “Harwell was banished without warning, process or explanation, following the publication of his accurate reporting about Musk”.

CNN said in a statement that “the impulsive and unjustified suspension of a number of reporters, including CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, is concerning but not surprising”.

“Twitter’s increasing instability and volatility should be of incredible concern for everyone who uses Twitter,” CNN's statement added. “We have asked Twitter for an explanation, and we will reevaluate our relationship based on that response”.

Another suspended journalist, Matt Binder of the technology news outlet Mashable, said he was banned on Thursday night immediately after sharing a screenshot that O’Sullivan had posted before the CNN reporter's suspension.

The screenshot showed a statement from the Los Angeles Police Department sent earlier to multiple media outlets, including The Associated Press, about how it was in touch with Musk's representatives about the alleged stalking incident, but that no crime report had yet been filed.

“I did not share any location data, as per Twitter’s new terms. Nor did I share any links to ElonJet or other location tracking accounts,” Binder said in an email. “I have been highly critical of Musk but never broke any of Twitter’s listed policies”.

Binder said a message he received while trying to access his Twitter account showed that his suspension was permanent. But Musk later suggested the penalty would last a week in response to a question about his suspension of former ESPN and MSNBC host Keith Olbermann.

Late on Thursday, Musk briefly joined a Twitter Spaces conference chat hosted by journalist Kate Notopoulos of Buzzfeed. He reiterated his claims that the journalists Twitter banned were “doxxing" him when they were reporting on the jet tracking accounts being banned.

“There is not special treatment for journalists,” Musk said, after being asked by the Post’s Drew Harwell if he had a connection between the stalking incident and posting of real-time information.

“You dox, you get suspended, end of story,” he added, before abruptly signing out. 

Another suspended reporter, Steve Herman of Voice of America, said he assumes he was banned “because I was tweeting about other journalists being suspended for tweeting about accounts being booted that had linked to the Elon Jet feed”.