The United Nations is “very disturbed” by Twitter’s abrupt suspension of a group of US journalists, a spokesperson has said, warning that the move sets a “dangerous precedent” – as the EU said the social media platform could fall foul of forthcoming digital regulations.
Stéphane Dujarric said on Friday the UN was “very disturbed” by the barring of prominent tech reporters at news organisations including CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times who have written about Musk and the tech company he owns.
Dujarric said media voices should not be silenced on a platform that professed to be a haven for freedom of speech. “The move sets a dangerous precedent at a time when journalists all over the world are facing censorship, physical threats and even worse,” he told reporters.
Germany’s government said press freedom must not be switched “on and off on a whim” and Downing Street also raised concernsover the suspensions.
The warning from the EU came from Věra Jourová, the European Commission vice-president for values and transparency, who tweeted that “news about arbitrary suspension of journalists on Twitter is worrying” and said the economic bloc’s Digital Services Act (DSA) required platforms to respect media freedom. Its provisions include a requirement that when users and content are penalised it must be in a “diligent and proportionate manner, with due regard to fundamental rights”.
“This is reinforced under our Media Freedom Act. Elon Musk should be aware of that. There are red lines. And sanctions, soon,” she said. Breaches of the DSA, which comes into force for large tech companies next year, carry the threat of fines of up to 6% of global turnover or being temporarily suspended in extreme cases. The European Media Freedom Act, which also addresses the operation of tech platforms, is currently in draft form.
The official spokesperson for the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said tech companies must “balance protecting their users while upholding free speech”. The German government tweeted screenshots of the affected accounts and said it had a “problem” with the suspensions. Germany’s foreign office tweeted: “Press freedom cannot be switched on and off on a whim. The journalists below can no longer follow us, comment or criticise us. We have a problem with that, @Twitter.”
Sunak’s spokesperson added that the UK’s forthcoming online safety bill would bar large platforms such as Twitter from suspending users if they had not breached the company’s terms of service, thus preventing “arbitrary” decisions about freedom of speech online.
However, Musk’s suspension of the group of tech journalists on Thursday was for breaking a new user guideline about revealing people’s locations, which had been created the day before.
He claimed they had breached the rule, which bars users from publishing “live location information” that would “reveal a person’s location, regardless if this information is publicly available”. The journalists had recently published articles about Musk’s suspension of a Twitter account that had shared publicly available data about the movements of his private jet. The news articles that several reporters had published before their accounts were suspended did not include information about his real-time location, or the location of any of his family members.
The Guardian has contacted Twitter for comment.
Campaign groups also condemned the suspensions. The Center for Countering Digital Hate said Musk “does not understand the difference between the public interest and his own interests” and was seeking to expel journalists critical of him rather than tackling dangerous hate speech, while the Open Rights Group urged journalists to set up accounts on the rival platform Mastodon.
The first amendment campaign group Pen America said that since Musk bought the business in October he had treated Twitter “more like a personal fiefdom than a global public square”.
CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times criticised the journalist suspensions, with CNN saying the moves were of “incredible concern” to anyone who uses the platform.
In a Twitter Spaces event held after suspensions were announced, Musk was questioned about the bans by some of the journalists who had their accounts suspended. He said journalists were not being treated differently to other citizens. Using the term for sharing someone’s private personal information online without permission, he said: “If you doxx, you get suspended. That’s it. End of story.” The Space was then deleted entirely by Twitter, with the host’s connection cutting out mid-sentence.
Meanwhile, as Musk’s team attempted to prevent further discussion of his private plane’s movements, the bans have spiralled. First, the Twitter account for Mastodon was banned after it posted a link to a mirror of ElonJet – the now banned account at the centre of the flurry of suspensions. Links to individual Mastodon users were then blocked after they shared details of Musk’s private plane.
Then, links to entire Mastodon servers were banned, starting with the largest versions of the “federated” social network including Mastodon.social, and then spreading to encompass smaller and smaller instances such as infosec.exchange, for cybersecurity professionals, and journa.host, a media-only server.
A few hours later, Twitter started blocking users from adding their Mastodon usernames to their profiles. Users trying to post links to those sites were presented with a warning that the link “has been identified by Twitter or our partners as being potentially harmful”.
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