State media has said the expanding national crackdown on internet rumours should extend to government officials and departments that knowingly publish falsehoods in a bid to distance themselves from blame or criticism.
Xinhua listed four examples of "official rumours" in its article yesterday. It pointed to the National Energy Administration, which late last year said a veteran journalist's claim that former director Liu Tienan was tied to fraud was "sheer slander". Liu was eventually sacked and is under criminal investigation for suspected bribe-taking.
The other three examples involved local government agencies, all of which had in the past denied online allegations about their staff but were proved to be true by later investigations.
Xinhua itself is guilty of publishing unsubstantiated claims. The news agency picked up a report earlier this month by the New Evening Times, out of Harbin . The newspaper article claimed former NSA intelligence contractor Edward Snowden had dropped a bombshell revelation that Russia - and not the United States - was the first to land on the moon.
The source for the claim was a Twitter account that appeared to belong to the fugitive. The influential Beijing Evening News quoted the Times several days later and more official media outlets, including Xinhua, the People's Daily and CCTV, followed suit.
The warning against such "official rumours" came amid a campaign against online rumours, which the Ministry of Public Security launched last week. Enforcement has intensified in recent days.
Ge Qiwei , an independent commentator with a large following, was detained on Tuesday in Hengyang , Hunan province, for "fabricating and spreading rumours, smearing other people's reputation, making illegal earnings by his influence on the web", the Changsha Evening News reported yesterday. Ge attracted national attention with his reporting, including his coverage of a case in which a teenage girl who was disfigured by a schoolmate after she refused his advances.
Zhou Xiaozheng , a professor of sociology at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said the campaign against rumour-mongering infringed upon people's right to expression. He said the crackdown was misconceived, and a government with good credibility would not need to launch such a campaign.
"Why would people believe in those 'rumours'?" he said, "To solve this, the government should promote democracy and crack down on corruption."
In two significant recent cases, Beijing police detained four former employees of internet marketing firm Erma on August 20 for concocting stories. On August 23, Beijing police detained Charles Xue Biqun for suspected involvement in prostitution. Xue, with a following of more than 12 million "fans", was named by official media as having links with an "online rumour-monger".