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Beijing Defends Law Criminalizing Online Speech

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A man scratches his face as he uses a computer at an internet cafe in Hefei in China's Anhui province, March 16, 2012.

A man scratches his face as he uses a computer at an internet cafe in Hefei in China's Anhui province, March 16, 2012.

Chinese authorities are defending controversial new online content policies that critics say further restrict speech on China's already heavily censored Internet.

On Monday, the country’s judicial authorities, the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate, issued a legal interpretation of the crime of defamation to include information shared on the Internet.

The measure states that people who post offensive micro blog posts that are forwarded by 500 people or viewed by at least 5,000 users could be charged with defamation, and face prison. The list of banned activities includes spreading online rumors, stirring up troubles, disrupting public order and harming China’s national interest.

Although the top court said the new interpretation of the defamation law is the result of more than a year of research and consultation with government departments and lawyers, internet users and Chinese legal analysts are questioning its legal basis.

Commentaries in state-backed media have defended the new measures. In the People’s Daily on Friday, a commentary said opponents of the law must understand that “freedom of speech is not freedom from rumor.” It argued that without rules governing online speech, it “will ultimately corrupt public order.”

Earlier this week, businessman and high-profile blogger Pan Shiyi made an appearance on state broadcaster CCTV to express support to the interpretation. Pan, who has more than 16 million followers on his microblog, said users should be 'more disciplined' on the Internet.

A legal debate

The guidelines were published after a month when authorities intensified controls on the Internet. More than one hundred people have been arrested for spreading rumors online through micro blogs and chats.

Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang says the new measures give police legal powers to censor online speech and prosecute those who create or even pass along content deemed defamatory.

“In China the Internet gives many the chance to express their ideas and thus advance the freedom of expression, but now the police will have an easy excuse to shut down conversation online” he says.

Li Datong, a former journalist whose work has been censored by authorities, said the court’s document is unconstitutional.

“It hasn’t been submitted for revision or undergone a legal debate” says Li. He thinks authorities are trying to fill in the legal gaps of censorship. “Just because some police actions sparked fierce controversy, it now creates a legal basis for the police to act in the way they want,” he said.

Chinese internet users are required to use their real names when registering online blogs or social media accounts. Critics say the law is unfair because people have no control over how many others view or repost content that may be objectionable. There is also the issue of “proving” cyber defamation merely from counting the number of people who have viewed an objectionable post.

“The libel is a crime defined by the serious outcome of the defamation. But on the internet it is not easy to determine whether reading a post or forwarding it really does a great damage,” said lawyer Pu Zhiqiang.

All agree that the new rules enhance censors’ power over online discussions.

Jeremy Goldkorn, director of Danwei, a firm specializing in analyzing China’s internet, said the rules enforce controls on speech without having to define what content is banned.

“It’s a clever way of framing the control because you’re not saying you can’t write anything online, you’re saying if you write something online and it gets spread widely you’ll be held responsible,” said Goldkorn.

Rumor hunting

The judicial interpretation has sparked reactions among the more than 500 million people who have a registered account on Sina Weibo, the main micro blog platform.

One user writes "what they say is reasoning, what we say is rumors," and another echoes "this is an international mockery."

Many do not believe the guidelines will scare Chinese internet users, who have found a haven for independent and freewheeling discussion on the country’s internet.

“I think it will have a short term chilling effect, it’s obviously a coordinated campaign designed to take back control of the dominant narrative on social media and make it much more difficult for outsiders’ voices to express criticism,” said Goldkorn, adding online discussions will continue.

Others, such as former journalist Li Datong, suggest the regulations could create social disruptions by further driving government criticism underground.

“They don’t know that the Internet is simply the valve of a bigger pressure underneath," said Li. "They think that if you don’t talk about something it doesn’t exist. But it’s like a pressure cooker. If you don’t let a bit of air out the cooker explodes. So explodes the Chinese society if you don’t let people express their problems and grievances,” he said.

The Chinese government disagrees. This week, a spokesman for the foreign ministry said that China’s Internet is not outside the law and the government’s actions have been “highly supported” by Chinese internet users

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