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China’s top court argues that it was not in the public interest to punish people discussing the Wuhan outbreak in the early days. Photo: EPA-EFE

Coronavirus ‘rumour’ crackdown by Wuhan police slammed by China’s top court

  • Supreme People’s Court says authorities should have tolerated messages posted about the illness in a group chat, even if they were not completely accurate
  • Chinese media report that a doctor posted information about the illness on an alumni forum before coming down with the virus himself
China’s top court has lashed out at police in the epicentre of a deadly coronavirus outbreak, arguing that Wuhan officers should not have punished a group of people in a medical discussion group for “spreading rumours” about the illness.

In an article published on the Supreme People’s Court’s social media account, a Beijing-based judge said that while the information shared in the group was not accurate, it should have been tolerated.

“It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the ‘rumour’ then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitisation measures, and avoid the wild animal market,” the judge said, referring to a market believed to be the source of the outbreak in Wuhan.
The article, published on Tuesday under the name of the court’s official mouthpiece, underlines growing dissatisfaction at the initial handling of the outbreak by authorities in the central Chinese city, with delays in the disclosure of information and punishment of those who chose to do so on their own.
It follows an announcement by Wuhan police on January 1 that they had “taken legal measures” against a group of eight people who had recently “spread rumours” on the pneumonia-like illness.

The police did not identify the accused, what they shared, or how they had been punished. On Wednesday, after the article was published, local police said that those people had not been warned, detained or fined, and were only summoned for a talk.

Chinese media reported on Tuesday that the “rumour” was a message shared by a local doctor from an unidentified hospital on his medical school alumni WeChat group.

According to Beijing Youth Daily, the doctor told the group on December 30 that the city had seen seven patients – all from a local seafood market – diagnosed with severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, a similar contagious coronavirus that killed nearly 800 people in 17 countries in 2003.

The doctor later clarified in the group that the new type of virus was still being identified – meaning that it was not accurate to call it Sars, the report said.

The doctor was summoned to the local police station twice, and forced to sign a letter promising to make no further disclosure about the outbreak, the report said.

The same day that the doctor shared the messages, local health authorities announced that the city had confirmed 27 cases of a new type of virus, most of them linked to a seafood market.

After the summons, the doctor treated a patient who had a fever and whose lung scan indicated pneumonia. Three days later, the doctor came down with the illness and was moved to an isolation ward. His parents were also infected and admitted to hospital, the report said.

In its article on Tuesday, the court said rumours were best resolved when the government was transparent.

“If rumours are proved [to be true] time after time, then the people will naturally choose to believe them in times of a breaking event,” it said.

“To punish any information not totally accurate is neither legally necessary nor technically possible.

“It … undermines the credibility of the government and chips away at public support for the Communist Party. It could even be used by hostile overseas forces as an excuse to criticise us.”

The court also acknowledged that the country’s judicial system had no say over punishments by local police, but it felt obliged to share its thinking of “rumours”.

In China, police can summon, issue warnings to and even detain for up to 14 days whomever they deem necessary, without any approval of either prosecutors or the courts.

Criticism has mounted online in China over delays to releases of information about the virus.

The mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, told state television on Monday that he waited for approval from more senior officials to disclose updates to the public.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Supreme court slams police decision to gag doctor who dubbed virus Sars