A 16-year-old boy in China is among the first group of bloggers to run afoul of new Chinese laws aiming to crack down on so-called “rumors” online.
Lawyers for Yang Hui say authorities released him Tuesday after he spent one week in jail in central Gansu province.
Police detained him on charges of stirring trouble after he posted comments questioning a local investigation into the death of a karaoke manager, whose body was found on a local street.
Police quickly concluded the manager died after falling from a building and closed the case, but skeptical residents held demonstrations to demand an investigation.
Yang Hui’s detention drew the attention of lawyers and rights activists who championed his case. Wang Shihua, one of his lawyers, said the legal team successfully picked apart the charges.
“Yang was arrested on charges of picking up quarrels and provoking troubles. Yesterday evening they dropped the charges and turned the case into an administrative punishment, but as Yang is underage and this is the first time he’s put under administrative punishment, detention doesn’t apply and they had to release him” the lawyer said.
A test for Internet Rumor Law
On September 14, Yang wrote claiming that three days after the accidental death of the karaoke manager, Zhangjiachuan police had not given any explanation of the incident, media were not reporting it, and demonstrators seeking justice had been beaten.
In the following days, Yang wrote two more posts, providing photos taken in front of the karaoke establishment where paramilitary police were deployed with shields and sticks.
His microblog posts were forwarded more than 500 times, making him subject to the new judicial guidelines that say online posts that attract more than 5,000 views or more than 500 reposts can be deemed criminal if they spread information the government considers irresponsible rumors.
Lawyer Wang Shihua believes Yang’s release is a breakthrough in determining whether the new guidelines on internet rumors are reasonable or not.
“From this case we can see that this rule is not practical and affects people’s freedom of expression” he said. “This case will have a big impact on the future of the law” Wang said.
Yang Hu’s case has revived criticism of the law aiming to crack down on so-called ‘rumors’ online enacted by China’s supreme court earlier in September.
More than 40 prominent lawyers signed a petition online asking for the young boy’s release. Over the weekend, Yang Hui’s name was among the most searched items on Weibo, the local micro blog platform.
Rachel Lu, a writer at Tea Leaf Nation, a research firm that monitors China’s internet, said this case indicates the many ways the new regulation can be abused.
“The local governments to clamp down on local protest they are taking this law very seriously and they are willing to use it against people within their jurisdiction,” she said.
Last week, police reportedly questioned another prominent netizen, who helped expose the case of a corrupt official with an apparent fondness for luxury watches. Blogger Wu Dong’s pictures launched the investigation into Yang Dacai, a local Shanxi officer who was later sentenced to 14 years in prison for taking bribes.
Impact of legal crackdown
While many spoke out against the judicial interpretation as a tool to silence debate online and crack down on dissent, there is evidence that the guidelines are proving effective.
Chinese media recently published data suggesting Weibo activism has decreased.
“I have spoken to people in charge of monitoring public opinion within the Chinese government and they say our job just got easier because people are not talking that much” said Lu. “This law is working. People have been intimidated”.