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September 20, 2013

Chinese Courts Put More Criminal Trials Online

by VOA News

Chinese courts are increasingly using social media, such as the Twitter-like Weibo, to broadcast live updates from courtrooms in a move that analysts say is aimed at gaining public trust.

The trend appears to be accelerating following the high-profile trial of Bo Xilai, a former rising politician who stood trial in August for corruption and abuse of power.

Although media access to the courtroom was restricted, the court posted lengthy transcripts during the five-day trial, attracting more than half a million Weibo followers.

Analysts say the openness during Bo Xilai’s trial is having a broader impact.

“It has increased the public’s expectations,” said King-Wa Fu, assistant professor at the Journalism and Media Studies center at the University of Hong Kong “The public wants more transparency and they want more open data to the public.”

This week, courts in Beijing and Nanjing released live updates from at least three high profile criminal trials - although the proceedings were speedier and the defense more subdued than in Bo’s case.

In one instance, a man was accused of having killed an infant after a brawl with the baby’s mother over a parking space in Daxing, one of Beijing’s mega districts, in late July. The incident has been hotly debated in Chinese media because of the brutal and random nature of the crime.

During the four hour trial on Monday, the Beijing First Intermediate Court published 11 updates, including photos of the defendants - the accused murderer Han Lei, and a friend who allegedly helped him flee the scene of the crime.

Still images taken from a surveillance video at the crime scene were posted online, as well as summaries of the prosecution charges and of the defendant’s apology and claims of remorse.

Jacques Delisle, professor of law and director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania said that although the trend towards more transparency is unmistakable, the reasons might vary from case to case.

“The Bo case was, it appears, an attempt to confirm that we are not back in the old Mao days or Stalin style political trials, that he had a chance to present a defense,” Delisle said in an email to VOA.

“With other trials, there is obviously less of that going on... One can read them as an attempt to show that the authorities are on the job and the criminal justice system is working and dealing with behavior that ordinary people fear and condemn.”

Chinese media reports say that last year more than 600 courts used official Weibo accounts, and 17 of them regularly used their microblog to broadcast live information from trials.

Duan Wanjin, a Shaanxi-based criminal lawyer said that such efforts towards transparency are a first step towards more substantial reform of the judiciary in China.

The law in China mandates that with the exception of cases involving state secrets or individual privacy, all criminal trials should be open to the public.

But in practice, Duan said, access to hearings or court documents has often been denied.

“It often happens that the courts' leaders who decide the seatings during a trial let government staff or even police and investigators participate in the hearing, but the public and even journalists are never allowed in. This has created a huge problem of public mistrust of courts.”

By showcasing trials online the courts are trying to win that trust back, analysts said.

During the last meeting of China’s legislature in March, Zhou Qiang was appointed as head of the People’s Supreme Court. His election created some expectation of reform among legal scholars, particularly after a speech in late May where Zhou encouraged lower courts to be more transparent. “Openness should be the principle,” Zhou was quoted as saying during the meeting.

Commentaries on state media as well as policy documents from China's propaganda departments have fleshed out the rationale behind this new approach.

In an article on the People's Daily this week, the director of China's State Internet Information Office - the organ that oversees the Internet in China - used war metaphors when talking about the Party's need for a tougher hand on propaganda work.

“If we do not effectively occupy emerging public opinion battlefields, other people will occupy them.” the article read.

Analysts agree that in recent years the party has been perfecting the way it sends its message to the public, while at the same time tightly controlling public discourse online.

“It is open but still within a very controlled environment,” King-Wa Fu said. “It picks up the information that it feels comfortable to make open. But it does not mean that in the public people can have more space to speak openly.”

But there is some consensus among analysts in China that the trend towards more openness within the judiciary cannot be reversed, whether the party likes it or not.