What makes a rumor?

By Jiang Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2013-9-5 20:38:01

Graphics: GT

Graphics: GT

 Among the increasing numbers of alleged rumormongers arrested in the current nationwide campaign are Fu Xuesheng, who allegedly fabricated a sex scandal at the State-owned China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), and those spreading rumors about a transfer of a local official that led to a large public gathering near government offices in Shenmu, Shaanxi Province.

As far as rumor cases go, these seemed fairly clear cut. But what of the case in Shiyan, Hubei Province, where a man surnamed Xue was detained on August 29 for fabricating information and disturbing social order? In Xue's case, his "rumor" had the basic facts of a car accident correct, but he said seven had died when in fact only three had perished.

At least when a similar occurrence happened to Yu Heyu, a Net user in Suzhou, Anhui Province, police apologized after detaining him when he incorrectly stated the number of casualties in a traffic accident.

The cases have stirred up the uneasiness among Net users nationwide, who remain uncertain as to the scope of the current anti-rumor campaign.

Different approaches

Wang Zhanyang, a professor with the Central Institute of Socialism, pointed out that the authorities have not yet clarified a precise definition of rumors, yet the campaign has evolved into a national movement. He said this has given rise to different approaches to enforcing the campaign by different local police departments.

"Life is filled with incorrect figures and it is hard to avoid them. Mistakes do not necessarily violate the law, let alone constitute a crime. Such serious punishments for tiny slips will only worry the public," Wang said.

The debate over differing police reactions became more heated when another detention muddied the waters. A woman surnamed Zhao was administratively detained by local police in Hebei Province.

Ironically enough, the post that got her into trouble read, "I heard there was a murder in Louzhuang. Does anybody know the real situation?" The police explained that her words triggered a panic, but the authorities themselves quickly came under fire from Net users and experts for inadequately proving their claim.

He Bing, vice president of the Law School of the China University of Political Science and Law, said that rumormongers could be put in detention by the police only on condition that the information published was deliberately fabricated and the influence on the society was harmful, but there is no clear line between honest mistakes and malicious rumors in the present laws.

"Local police may also have quotas to meet, which further muddles the situation," Wang noted, adding that people must be extremely cautious when airing extreme opinions because they may end up having unintended consequences.

Tong Zhiwei, a professor with the East China University of Political Science and Law, noted that every government agency must respect and protect freedom of speech in accordance with China's Constitution, even though there is no specific law that does this. "However, freedom of speech should not be abused and will be limited in future legislation."

At present, the law categorizes rumors into four varieties. They are words attempting to overthrow the government, rumors to extort money from others, comments that cause massive panic, and any anti-Party discourse.

Tolerance online

Yang Hua, the head of the department of legal publicity at the judicial bureau in Minhang district, Shanghai, told the Global Times that authorities must harshly suppress malicious rumors that have seriously affected society in accordance with the law.

Yang said that government officials are obliged to stand up in time to clarify the rumors before they get worse. "The Internet has offered a platform for officials to carry out the 'mass line' campaign and it is natural to hear opposing voices in the cyber space. That's when the government must show tolerance as those vexatious complaints don't actually mean to cause any harm."

This was echoed by Wang, who added that anti-corruption work would be obstructed if the government could not accept the existence of any erroneous information.

Yang also noted that Net users must be responsible for their words and deeds online and should not jump to comments or conclusions without rationally considering the issue.

As for libel, victims should file lawsuits with courts on their own if they feel that the words have smeared their reputation, according to He Bing.

"Disappointingly, the courts rarely accept these cases, making it hard to set a precedent to avoid further rumors," He said, adding that a dangerous judicial precedent might have been set with more and more rumor cases ended up with detention by police.

Applause for police

A Saturday Sina Weibo post from local police in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province said that the ongoing campaign against online rumors has to abide by the law but should not be "extended blindly." It also used a classic Chinese allusion to imply that public opinion is critical to the government.

The post was welcomed by Net users, as it demonstrated that the authorities were showing prudence and restraint in their approach to dealing with controversial rumor cases.

Although the post was later deleted by its account operator, the allusion was posted once again on Monday by the Higher People's Court in Guangdong Province.

Lu Qun, deputy director of the anti-corruption office at the Hunan Provincial Commission for Discipline Inspection, also praised the Guangdong authorities for pointing out that the police must be cautious as they are at the forefront of the campaign.

Meanwhile, the apology from Anhui police also won them applause as it admitted mistakes, while it still sent out a warning to potential troublemakers as well as refuted erroneous information.

Lu told the Global Times that the Anhui police had set an example for other government bodies about what to do in misjudged cases.

"Police in Hubei also were worthy of two thumbs up, as they have warned those looking for trouble in society. More importantly, they are adhering to the law. This is how we should conduct our work as civil servants. We apologize for our mistakes; we stick to our lawful decisions," Yang noted.

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