Court clarifies rumor law

By Zhang Xiaobo Source:Global Times Published: 2013-9-9 18:20:00

Parents and children watch performance art that criticizes online rumors at Liaocheng University in Shandong Province on August 23, as the performer cuts a board with the words “online rumors.” Photo: CFP

The Supreme People's Court Monday released interpretations specifying offenses punishable by the Criminal Law, in an upgraded effort by Chinese authorities to combat online rumors.

To make the law compatible with illegal activities specific to cyber space, the new interpretations, effective as of Tuesday, quantify the number of view rates of false information and amount of money charged for the "post deleting" business, and lays out what exactly constitutes "social disorder and national interests" to make rumor mongers accountable under the Criminal Law.

The interpretations also explained conditions under which anyone who commits an online offense can be charged with the crime of "provoking trouble" and "extortion."

Existing laws stipulate that only "serious" defamation is punishable by the Criminal Law, while lesser offenses will only constitute civil or administrative violations. But how to define "serious" has been difficult for the court in actual cases.

According to a joint statement by the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the offense of online defamation will be regarded as "serious" if a post of false information is visited 5,000 times or forwarded more than 500 times. This means the person who posted the rumor will be punishable by the Criminal Law, facing up to three years in prison.

It also applies to people who intentionally spread the rumors while consciously knowing the information is false.

To ease worries that the national anti-rumor campaign could hurt people who pass on other people's posts without knowing they are false, the statement said these people will not be held legally responsible for defamation.

Net users who post online about alleged official corruption where the post is later found to contain factual errors will not be legally liable, as long as they did not make up the information intentionally, according to Sun Jungong, the spokesman of the Supreme People's Court.

As defamation offenders will usually be brought to justice only when the victim files a lawsuit, except when it "seriously hurts national interests," the court also specifies that the damage includes causing mass riots, ethnic or religious conflicts, hurting the national image or making a bad international impact.

The interpretations also targets businesses that profit from posting false information or deleting "negative online posts" for involved parties. People who are paid more than 50,000 yuan ($8,170) to delete posts or release false information are now considered to have committed the crime of "engaging in illegal business operations."

"This will provide protection to online freedom of speech, meaning that Net users don't have to worry that they might be sent to prison for spreading posts, which might contain some false information that they are unaware of," Hong Daode, law professor with the China University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times, adding that the release of the interpretation has started a trend to make online crimes accountable to the law.

A recent campaign by the police that has targeted online crimes across the nation has resulted in the detention of hundreds of people.

Qin Zhihui, who is widely known by his screen name Qin Huohuo, and his accomplice were detained by police in August for engaging in illegal business operations.

They were accused of fabricating and spreading online rumors and profiting from their illegal actions, which included a rumor that the government had granted 200 million yuan in compensation to a foreign passenger who died in a train accident in 2011.

Experts are also calling for further clarification of the definition of "provoking trouble" in online crimes.

According to the document, people will face the charge of "provoking trouble" if the rumors that they fabricate or spread intentionally cause "severe public disorder". But whether the concept of "public disorder" could be applied to cyber space still remains vague.

A previous statement released by the Ministry of Public Security on August 21 said that cyber space was another type of public forum, making it feasible to apply laws to cyber crimes.

Posted in: Politics, Society

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