Elon Musk's talk of being a free speech champion at Twitter is at odds with the suspension of accounts of journalists who cover him and the tech firm he bought for $44 billion
San Francisco (AFP) - Twitter owner Elon Musk drew anger and stern warnings from the UN and EU on Friday after suspending the accounts of half a dozen prominent journalists – accusing them of endangering his family.
Journalists from CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post were cut off from the platform without warning, provoking the newest controversy since Musk took over the company on October 27.
“News about arbitrary suspension of journalists on Twitter is worrying,” EU commissioner Vera Jourova posted on Twitter, warning the influential platform could face hefty fines through European laws.
“Elon Musk should be aware of that. There are red lines. And sanctions, soon,” she added.
The spokesman for UN chief Antonio Guterres called it a “dangerous precedent at a time when journalists all over the world are facing censorship, physical threats and even worse.”
The latest controversy began when Musk on Wednesday suspended @elonjet, an account that tracked flights of his private jet.
Musk said the move was necessary after a car in Los Angeles carrying one of his children was followed by “a crazy stalker” and seemed to blame the tracking of his jet for the incident.
Some of the journalists had reported on the affair, including tweets linking to the suspended @elonjet account, which Musk said amounted to “assassination coordinates” against he and his family.
In a chat hosted live on Twitter, Musk provided no evidence for his claim but told some of the suspended reporters that on Twitter “everyone’s going to be treated the same… they’re not special because you’re a journalist.”
Pressed further on his allegations, Musk ended the conversation. Twitter Spaces, the feature where the chat took place, was then suspended.
Media organizations criticized the move sharply and opened the door to re-evaluating their relationship with Twitter, which has become an essential tool for journalism over the past decade.
“The impulsive and unjustified suspension of a number of reporters, including CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, is concerning but not surprising,” the news organization said in a tweet.
“Twitter’s increasing instability and volatility should be of incredible concern for everyone who uses the platform.”
The New York Times said in a statement it also wanted answers from Twitter regarding the “questionable” suspension of journalists.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which defends the freedom of the press around the world, decried a “Kafkaesque nightmare” for journalists that depend on Twitter.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said Twitter “should immediately restore these reporters’ accounts.”
“If confirmed as retaliation for their work, this would be a serious violation of journalist’s right to report the news without fear of reprisal,” added Jodie Ginsberg, the president of the CPJ.
- Twitter exodus? -
Twitter has lurched from one controversy to the next since Musk took control after paying $44 billion, mainly by selling shares in Tesla, his successful electric car company.
The billionaire’s talk of unfettered speech has scared off major advertisers and caught the attention of regulators.
Musk has reinstated the account of former US president Donald Trump and lashed out against the outgoing key advisor for the US response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Anthony Fauci, a frequent target of vitriol on right-wing media.
CNN has reported that Twitter’s former head of trust and safety fled his home after baseless attacks on Twitter content moderation, endorsed by Musk.
Meanwhile, a purge initiated by Musk at Twitter left more than half of its 7,500 employees on the sidelines and now many of them are taking the SpaceX and Tesla tycoon to court.
Musk at one point signaled he was going to war with Apple over the App Store, only to later tweet that it was a “misunderstanding.”
Market tracker Insider Intelligence forecast that Twitter will experience an exodus of users.
“There won’t be one catastrophic event that ends Twitter,” said Insider Intelligence analyst Jasmine Enberg.
“Instead, users will start to leave the platform next year as they grow frustrated with technical issues and the proliferation of hateful or other unsavory content.”