Papers support move against online 'rumour-mongers'

But some worry detentions by Beijing police just another attempt by central government to stifle online criticism

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 5:24am

The government's campaign to rein in the internet entered a new frontier last week with the detention of four people in connection with a Beijing internet marketing company on allegations of rumour-mongering online.

The Beijing police moved against Beijing Erma Interactive Marketing and Planning after online posts surfaced attacking Lei Feng, the People's Liberation Army soldier whom the Communist Party has lionised as a model of humility and bravery since his death four decades ago.

The Beijing Erma employees, who include founder Yang Xiuyu and staffer Qin Zhihui, are suspected of "making trouble and operating an illegal business", according to the Beijing Times. The same report described the company as "a typical online criminal organisation with underworld characteristics".

The company has long used salacious and provocative posts about public figures and institutions to "rock" the internet and drive traffic to certain sites, police said.

People's Daily, the party's main mouthpiece, said the strategy had helped Beijing Erma earn more than 10 million yuan (HK$12.6 million) over the past seven years.

Although many praised the effort to shut down Beijing Erma, others were concerned that it might represent another expansion of the party's effort to clamp down on the internet.

The government has justified many of these moves, such as requiring real-name weibo registration, by describing them as necessary to combat rumours.

Official statements on the Beijing Erma detentions also appeared to send a message to online "opinion leaders".

The China Youth Daily said it saw a "clear chain of cybercrime in the Erma case", but said there were also concerns that some in authority might attack dissidents under the guise of "governance". It said excessive intervention could negatively affect people's freedom of expression.

The Beijing Times praised the arrests, saying the creation and spreading of internet rumours were out of control. It suggested that subversive elements were using hot-button issues to stir up, confuse and sometimes directly attack people. It cited the case of the man who helped create a public panic after claiming that radiation from Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant had polluted the sea around Shandong .

But the paper said authorities must clearly define the law against spreading rumours, so that internet users could exercise their rights to monitor society while enjoying a "cleaner and safer" cyberspace.

The Chinese version of the Global Times echoed the view, saying that while the guilty should take legal responsibility, the police should also try to avoid sweeping up the innocent by distinguishing between malicious rumours and simple emotional speech.

People's Daily, meanwhile, said authorities must be responsive when particularly attractive rumours pop up.

"In a place that has almost 600 million internet users and a community where communication technology advances rapidly, we need to unleash positive energy between justice and morality, sense and sensibility, and thought and the click of a fingertip," the paper said. "This is the most reliable and effective 'rumour-crasher'."

The Guangzhou Daily questioned whether the real reason rumours were so attractive to the general public was the general lack of transparency in Chinese society.

"Putting aside the issue of whether creating and spreading rumours online is legal, the event shows that the lack of transparency and openness of true information in the real world has given web rumours a ground to breed," the paper said.

"Sometimes, it is in fact the government's improper, covered-up, or sugar-coated discourse that forces some internet users into the trap of believing web rumours."