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Global Times: counting rumors

时间:2013-09-24 23:18:23  来源:Global Times   作者:Zhao Xiaobo  阅读:

When Xie Na, a famous TV show hostess with Hunan Television, posted comments on her personal Weibo on Monday saying that she would sue those who spread the rumor that she had bullied a flight attendant and a handicapped person during a flight, she unwittingly became the first celebrity to use newly published judicial interpretations that aim to curb online crimes including rumors.

The interpretations had been jointly released by the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate earlier that day, stipulating that libelous posts that attempt to hurt people's reputations, which are viewed 5,000 times or retweeted over 500 times, can be considered a crime and punished by the Criminal Law.

When it comes to news about celebrities, it's easy to reach these limits.

"I support the release of the interpretations. I will make a report to police this week to detain those who previously made up rumors about me," Xie wrote on her Sina Weibo account.

"Every case using a new law or judicial interpretation triggers a lot of attention, especially when it involves a celebrity. If Xie really decides to sue, it is a good thing because more people will learn how to use the interpretations to protect their rights," Zhao Li, a lawyer with the Beijing-based Zhenbang Law Firm, told the Global Times on Thursday.

A weapon for protection

Xie is certainly not the only one bothered by online rumors.

According to the Annual Report on the Development of New Media in China released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in June, among 100 hot topics online from January 2012 to January 2013, one third attracted significant numbers of rumors. The top three categories of rumors in 2012 were entertainment, social stability and those to do with livelihoods and welfare, taking up 17.3, 16.1 and 11.3 percent respectively, meaning that rumors are prevalent online.

The report defined rumors as information that was false. Unlike the judicial interpretations, malicious intent was not a factor.

In an effort to quell the tide of false information, police launched in August a campaign targeting online crimes, in particular, fabricating and spreading rumors, leading to the arrest of hundreds of alleged rumormongers nationwide.

However, without a clear judicial interpretation, many Net users worry the campaign may have a chilling effect. Already, there have been concerning examples.

In August, a 20-year-old woman, surnamed Zhao, from Qinghe county, Hebei Province, posted a note online asking if there was someone who knew what happened in relation to an alleged murder in Louzhuang, another local place. The post was viewed over 1,000 times.

Local police then detained her for five days, claiming that there was no murder in Louzhuang and what Zhao had done caused "severe" public disorder.

The case triggered wide concern about how to protect freedom of speech online amid the police campaign.

"I think the police overreacted in this case. The post that Zhao sent was simply a question, not spreading a rumor nor fabricating false information on purpose, so she shouldn't have received this punishment," Zhao Li told the Global Times, adding that the interpretations were expected to reduce instances of cases like these.

Meanwhile, the interpretations also vow to protect people who report corrupt officials, even though the accusation may contain some factual errors.

According to a statement released by the Supreme People's Court, relevant government departments should further investigate allegations of corruption. No crimes should be applied to these prosecutors even if false information is seen in the reports, as long as it is not fabricated intentionally to slander officials.

"In terms of defamation crimes applied to officials, it was a basic rule to tolerate errors in accusations but forbid attempts to frame people, meaning that Net users who intend to report corruption don't have to fear that they might be detained because of the imperfection of their accusations," Hong Daode, a law professor with the China University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times.

How serious is 'serious?'

While the interpretations have been applauded by many Net users, some articles of the interpretations have triggered debates online.

Some Net users have expressed concerns over the fact that the punishment is based on other people's reactions that they can't control. But when asked whether this runs contrary to the rule of law, legal experts said that it was not punishing people for the actions of others, and instead said it was just a way of gauging the seriousness of the crime.

Zhang Yonghong, a professor at the Law School of Xiangtan University said that it was unlikely to be used to set up people. "This possibility can't be ruled out, even though the odds are very slim. If it happened, the judicial responsibilities of the prosecutor would need to be examined, too."

Others questioned the numbers used to judge the severity of rumor crimes.

Some popular celebrity accounts on Weibo who use their verified names and are known as "Big Vs" have complained that the 500 reposts or 5,000 views thresholds are too low, making them easy targets. Other less famous users complain that they too can be harmed by rumors, but the thresholds are too low as those involved may only have a few dozen followers.

"It is understandable for the Court to set standards of '5,000 times' and '500 times,' both of them aim at defining how serious is 'serious' in an effort to make the Criminal Law more practical," Zhao said.

"But it is unfair to provide one size to fit all Net users in China. The Court should publish how the standards have been formulated, instead of giving people orders that might trigger controversy," he noted.

Despite the controversy, many Big Vs have shown their support for the release of the interpretations.

"The emergence of the Internet has not only formed a new kind of space, but also created a new type of social order. So new principles must be applied to cyberspace, or it will get out of control," Pan Shiyi, chairman of the Hong Kong-listed real estate developer SOHO China, who has more than 16 million Weibo fans, was cited by China Central Television on Wednesday as saying.

"It doesn't bother me too much whether it is 500 times or 5,000 times, the basic rule is that everyone, including me, can't fabricate or spread rumors to hurt people," he added.

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