China’s new judicial guidelines threatening jail sentences for people making libellous online posts have angered the country’s law practitioners and journalists.
On Monday, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a joint legal interpretation setting out the terms of criminal liability for information shared online. The country’s top judges and prosecutors said jail sentences of up to three years could be handed out to those posting slanderous information on micro-blogs.
The new guidelines say that “rumour-mongering” Sina Weibo posts which are re-shared by 500 people, viewed by at least 5,000 or which hurt China's national interest can result in such jail sentences.
The guidelines come after hundreds of people have been detained for spreading rumours online over the last month across the country for "spreading rumours" or "stirring trouble" with online posts or comments. The authorities argue that the new guidelines are needed to crack down on misinformation.
Many critics reacted with sarcasm. “I really, really love the Communist Party,” Beijing-based lawyer Pu Zhiqiang wrote on his Sina Weibo microblog post on Monday night, along with a photo of him holding a bouquet of red roses. Dozens of people - among them several prominent lawyers - replied calling him a “rumour-monger”. “Can’t I slander myself?,” lawyer Pu retorted.
He is not alone in questioning the guidelines. Prominent lawyers Liu Xiaoyuan and Li Fangping both challenged the court and the prosecutors’ right to issue such “legal interpretations”.
Wang Cheng, a Zhejiang-based lawyer, argued in a post that the National People’s Congress decree granting the two judicial organs the right to issue such guidelines dating from 1981 was superseded by China’s 1982 constitution. They therefore lacked the authority to issue such legal interpretations, Wang wrote in a blogpost.
Liberal-leaning newspapers also argued against further restraints on public debate. Citizens need “some space to say incorrect things”, the Beijing News said in an editorial.
“Interpretations of criminal law should reflect the criminal law’s spirit of restraint,” it said, cautioning against a harsh crackdown. “The judicial organs must provide evidence the perpetrator has ‘knowingly’ created and spread rumours,” the paper added.
The Hunan-based Xiaoxiang Morning Post warned that new criminal liability could be abused by deliberately re-sharing weibo posts to incriminate people. In the article, which has since disappeared from the newspaper’s website, Zhang Yonghong, a law professor at Xiangtan University, emphasised that judicial organs were still obligated to prove a defendant had knowingly shared misinformation.
The Guangdong-based Southern Metropolis Daily declared itself in opposition to the new guidelines in a terse Sina Weibo post. “How a country treats speech, especially not very accurate speech, is a benchmark of its constitutional rule. [...] It is a must that this will not stifle criticism.”
Others praised the new guidelines. The guidelines clarify the bottom line of criminal liability and at least allow free speech within certain boundaries, the Beijing Times said, quoting legal scholar Hong Daode.
The Global Times, a partisan national daily, declared the “end of the era of online dazibao” in its editorial reaction. The so-called big-character posters proliferated in moments of popular protest in China – such as in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and during the Democracy Wall movement after Mao Zedong’s death. While some associate moments of rare free speech with the posters, others say they spread libellous accusations leading to public persecution.
“[We] believe that the vast majority of internet users will not worry about the legal interpretations […], only an extremely small number of people will feel they cannot speak ‘freely’,” it argued. “These people have to think whether in the past they have not acted out of proportion and now have to adjust their thinking.”