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[WELLINGTON] The tiny Pacific nation of Nauru was accused Tuesday of blocking access to Facebook to curb criticism of government policies, including its decision to host an Australian-backed camp for asylum-seekers.
The government announced a crackdown last week on Internet access in the deeply religious nation of 10,000 people, saying it was aimed at sites displaying pornography which was "not consistent with our faith and values".
But former president Sprent Dabwido said Facebook - which specifically bans pornographic content - had been caught up in the government dragnet.
He said Nauru's current leader, President Baron Waqa, wanted to avoid scrutiny by blocking Facebook access for Nauruans and the inhabitants of an Australian-run asylum-seeker detention camp on the island.
"The people there are grumbling," he told Radio New Zealand International.
"You know the worst thing you can do to people who are in detention is actually prevent them from having the freedom to interact with families overseas and people back at home." Since 2013 Australia has sent all asylum-seekers arriving by boat into detention on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and denied them resettlement in Australia despite an outcry from rights groups.
Official Australian data shows the detention centre has been an economic boon for aid-dependent Nauru, employing about 650 locals as Canberra spends about A$470 million (S$494 million) annually to operate the facility.
Opposition politician Matthew Batsiua also rejected the government's assertion the ban was implemented for moral reasons, saying Facebook was a common forum for people on Nauru to express dissent.
"The real agenda here is curbing the rights of people to access social media," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Nauru's sole Internet provider, Digicel, said access restrictions had been implemented at the request of the Nauru government.
"The government of Nauru instructed the blocking of certain Internet sites, some sites have already been blocked while the government is evaluating their suitability," it said in a statement to AFP.
Facebook told AFP it was aware of the reports its site was unavailable in Nauru and hoped it would be restored soon.
"We believe that restricting access to a free and open Internet deprives people of important economic and social opportunities and choices and hope that access will be restored soon," it said in a statement.
No one from the Nauru government was immediately available for comment, although last week's statement said the restrictions had received "tremendous support from the Nauruan people".
Justice Minister David Adeang said he was concerned about "an increase in children being exposed sexually online through both Internet sites and social media".