China’s supreme judicial authorities on Monday announced a new set of guidelines to take affect on Tuesday that formally link online speech to four existing crimes – libel, creating disturbances, illegal business operations and extortion.
People who post online rumours will be charged with defamation if the posts are visited by 5,000 internet users or reposted more than 500 times, according to the new rules.
Those convicted face up to three years in prison.
In addition, people using abusive language or threatening others online may be guilty of “creating disturbances”, it said.
The guidelines also cover illegal activities such as blackmail. Soliciting money from an individual by threatening to publish negative information about them or charging money to delete false information published online are categorised as extortion.
The rules define charging for publishing false information as a form of illegal business operation.
The measures come in the wake of an ongoing government crackdown on online rumours that has witnessed arrests of a number of “rumour mongers” in the past month. Many view it as a bid by the Chinese government to justify the heavy-handed campaign by issuing a judicial interpretation and outlining tough punishments for online speech and criticism deemed inflammatory or subversive.
The measures also attempt to address a growing trend in recent years in which citizen journalists and whistle blowers have turned to the internet to expose corruption, leading to a number of officials being sacked.
“Subjects shall not carry responsibility even if allegations about officials prove to be false, given that the individual did not fabricate facts to damage an official’s reputation deliberately,” the guidelines read.
Internet users who unwittingly repost false information shall not be held accountable even if the republished message damages a subjects’ reputation, the guidelines added.
The new measures quickly became a hot topic for discussion online on Monday afternoon.
“Supreme authorities’ prompt unveiling of a judicial interpretation was designed to reinforce the recent clampdown by police enforcers on free speech on the internet, which fully demonstrates China’s lack of an independent judiciary,” Beijing-based lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan commented on his Sina Weibo blog.
Other online critics voiced dismay at the lack of public consultation before the unveiling of new guidelines.
Renowned liberal lawyer Chen Youxi called it an example of a “strong government” versus a “weak judiciary” on his blog.