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Facebook condemned for ‘unfriending Australia’ with sweeping purge of news outlets

International Federation of Journalists warns media giant is ‘gravely undermining press freedom’

FACEBOOK has been slammed for “gravely undermining press freedom” when it blocked access to Australian news sites today.

The social media behemoth dramatically escalated its confrontation with the country over a new law requiring it and Google to pay news publishers for content overnight on Wednesday, shutting down Facebook pages belonging to media companies — and many more besides.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison denounced the “arrogant” decision to “unfriend Australia,” while Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the crackdown illustrated the “immense market power of these media digital giants.”

The decision closed down pages giving access to official information on government websites on health and emergencies – just three days before Canberra is due to begin its Covid-19 vaccine rollout.

Australian users trying to post news on Facebook saw error windows, while news content was removed from pages belonging to both private and state-owned media.

But the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) warned that the sweeping purge also closed “government and public health pages, trade unions and domestic violence hotline sites.”

Emergency services, including Fire and Rescue New South Wales and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services in Western Australia were also affected ahead of forecasted catastrophic fire conditions in the state.

General secretary Anthony Bellanger told the Morning Star: “After all their fine words about caring for and supporting media and the right to information, Facebook has shown its true colours as a greedy, profiteering tech giant. Facebook must be regulated and taxed. They cannot be above the law and continue to be allowed to drain money from local media to further enrich Mark Zuckerberg.”

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus tweeted that its page had been taken down. “Australian workers cannot now find out about their rights at work via Facebook. This is disgraceful & needs to be reversed immediately.”

Facebook admitted that some pages had been removed in error and was restoring access to many of these today. It said its action was merely an attempt to comply with new Australian laws, which are still being debated in Parliament.

Google ended a long-running feud with Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp by agreeing to pay for news content from its titles this week — but the IFJ has warned that a levy on tech companies must be used to promote public interest journalism, not enrich media tycoons. Nor is the impact of Google and NewsCorp’s “partnership” on the availability of non-NewsCorp media in Google searches immediately clear.

Australia’s Green Left — whose Facebook page also fell victim to the cull — said the episode was part of a “power struggle between the old media oligarchs, such as the detestable Murdoch, and the new media oligarchies like Facebook and Google.”

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