Elon Musk flees reporters after journalist “purge” — as EU official threatens Twitter “sanctions”

Musk's suspension of journalists from NY Times, Washington Post, CNN and others may violate EU law

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published December 16, 2022 9:08AM (EST)

Twitter and Tesla CEO Elon Musk is pictured as he attends the start of the production at Tesla's "Gigafactory" on March 22, 2022 in Gruenheide, southeast of Berlin. (PATRICK PLEUL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Twitter and Tesla CEO Elon Musk is pictured as he attends the start of the production at Tesla's "Gigafactory" on March 22, 2022 in Gruenheide, southeast of Berlin. (PATRICK PLEUL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Billionaire Elon Musk abruptly left a live Twitter discussion about the company banning journalists on Thursday after he was pressed on the suspensions.

Musk this week suspended @ElonJet, an account that used publicly available information to track his private jet flights, and other private flight trackers that relied on public info and remain available on more popular social networks like Facebook and Instagram. Twitter on Thursday subsequently banned more than a half-dozen prominent journalists that had covered Musk.

The suspended accounts include The Washington Post's Drew Harwell, The New York Times' Ryan Mac, CNN's Donie O'Sullivan, Voice of America's Steve Herman, The Intercept's Micah Lee, Mashable's Matt Binder, former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, and independent journalists Aaron Rupar and Tony Webster.

Musk, who has reinstated literal Nazis on the platform in the name of free speech, has claimed that the real-time flight trackers available on other larger platforms pose a risk of violence. He claimed that a man had followed a car carrying his young son because he thought it was him earlier this week, vowing legal action against the owner of the @elonjet account even though it's unclear how the flight tracker would aid someone in identifying and tracking a car. Musk had the Twitter policy on the flight trackers, which he had vowed not to ban, changed so to accommodate his complaints – days after criticizing previous Twitter management for restricting access to Hunter Biden laptop data and banning accounts that had not violated the actual terms of service.

"Harwell was banished from Twitter without warning, process or explanation, following the publications of his accurate reporting about Musk," The Post's executive editor Sally Buzbee said in a statement. "Our journalist should be reinstated immediately."

Charlie Stadtlander, a spokesman for the Times, called the suspensions "questionable and unfortunate."

"Neither The Times nor Ryan have received any explanation about why this occurred," he said in a statement. We hope that all of the journalists' accounts are reinstated and that Twitter provides a satisfying explanation for this action."

A CNN statement called the "impulsive and unjustified suspension" of reporters "concerning but not surprising."

"Twitter's increasing instability and volatility should be of incredible concern to everyone who uses the platform," the statement said. "We have asked Twitter for an explanation, and we will reevaluate our relationship based on that response."

The news alarmed a growing number of journalists and outlets.

"Elon Musk's Twitter journalist purge has begun," warned Vox's Shirin Ghaffary.

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Musk on Twitter claimed that the journalists had posted links to the banned flight tracker and accused them of trying to evade the ban on what he called "doxxing," which is more accurately used to describe the release of nonpublic information about private individuals. Musk hopped on a Twitter Spaces discussion among journalists about the ban, though he didn't stay long.

"Showing real-time information about somebody's location is inappropriate. And I think everyone on this call would not like that to be done to them," Musk said on the call, adding that "you're not special because you're a journalist."

BuzzFeed News reporter Katie Notopoulos, the host of the discussion, pointed out that Harwell and Mac were suspended for "reporting on it in the court of sort of pretty normal journalistic endeavors."

Harwell, who was on the call, jumped in to note that "I never posted your address."

"You posted a link to the address," Musk insisted.

"We posted a link in the course of reporting about @elonjet. We posted links to @elonjet, which are not now online and now banned on Twitter," Harwell said. "And Twitter of course also marks even Instagram and Mastodon accounts of ElonJet as harmful using, you know, we have to admit and acknowledge, using the exact same link-blocking technique that you have criticized as part of the Hunter Biden-New York Post story in 2020. So what is different here?"

"It's no more acceptable for you than it is for me. It's the same thing," Musk said.

"So it's unacceptable what you're doing?" Harwell pressed.

"No, you dox, you get suspended. End of story. That's it," Musk said, abruptly jumping off the call as Notopoulos asked him a follow-up question.

Notopoulos wrote on Twitter that after Musk left, the Twitter Space "cut out, screen went suddenly blank on my end and everyone got booted."

"Huh, appears the recording of this Space is strangely not available, funny that!" she added.

The company's decision to suspend journalists drew strong backlash from freedom of speech groups and even lawmakers.

"We are concerned about news reports that journalists who have covered recent developments involving Twitter and its owner, Elon Musk, have had their accounts on the platform suspended," The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement. "If confirmed as retaliation for their work, this would be a serious violation of journalists' right to report the news without fear of reprisal."

Rep. Tori Trahan, D-Mass., tweeted that her team had met with Twitter's team earlier on Thursday.

"They told us that they're not going to retaliate against independent journalists or researchers who publish criticisms on the platform," she wrote. "Less than 12 hours later, multiple technology reporters have been suspended. What's the deal, @elonmusk?"

The suspensions also caught the attention of officials in Europe, where tech regulation is stricter than in the U.S.

The German Foreign Office warned that "press freedom cannot be switched on and off on a whim."

"The journalists below can no longer follow us, comment and criticize. We have a problem with that," the ministry said on Twitter.

"News about arbitrary suspension of journalists on Twitter is worrying," tweeted Věra Jourová, a European Commission vice president. "EU's Digital Services Act requires respect of media freedom and fundamental rights. This is reinforced under our #MediaFreedomAct. @elonmusk

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

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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