Three years in the hoosegow: China Tightens Stranglehold On “New Media”

“Seize the ground of new media,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said elegantly when he was telling state-owned media to get on the ball.

So, effective today, the next chapter in seizing the ground of “new media,” and that includes anything on the internet, is this: Three years in the hoosegow for people who are found by the impartial and trustworthy Chinese judicial machinery to have produced libelous language that has been forwarded more than 500 times or has been clicked on more than 5,000 times.

Which isn’t exactly mass distribution. Even articles on my humble website routinely get that much traffic; the most read article (about the NSA’s backdoor into Windows 8) was read over 53,000 times. Even in certain states in the US, libel laws can be hazardous to bloggers since they don’t enjoy the legal protections of “journalists.”

But it pales compared to the legal crackdown in China. The document jointly released by the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procurator, China’s top prosecution entity, explains what would make the offending post such a horrid criminal offense. According to the SCMP, any “untrue” posts would qualify as a “serious case,” punishable by up to three years in prison, if they’re determined “to cause mental illness, self-harm, or suicide.”

OK, we get that. This kind of internet harassment or bullying that has such grave consequences should be outlawed and punished. But then there are other “serious cases,” such “as posts that lead to mass protests, instigate ethnic or religious clashes, damage the nation’s image, or” – quite a beauty – “cause a bad international effect.” Anyone could get tangled up in these rubbery categories.

If these criminal libel charges and three years in jail still aren’t enough, additional tools are available with which to slam hapless bloggers or micro-bloggers: charging them with “stirring up trouble, extortion, or operating an illegal business.” Add it all up, and pretty soon you’re in a heap of trouble.

Not that these speech enforcement mechanisms didn’t exist before. They have applied to “the public sphere,” which included print media, TV, etc., but not the internet. Now, “cyberspace is also part of the public sphere,” explained Sun Jungong, spokesman for the Supreme People’s Court.

The purpose of these machinations: to get an iron grip on rumors and misinformation – and certainly on inconvenient true information – that wash across the internet in waves, in a society where Freedom of Speech is a vice, rather than a constitutional right.

But there is a fascinating exemption that shows how serious China is not only about repressing with an iron fist anything that might foster “social instability,” political dissent, protests, and the like, but also about stamping out pandemic corruption in official circles. Riling up villagers (for example, about farmland contaminated with heavy metals or seized by local governments in favor of developers trying to build the next ghost city) is one thing, and remains strictly forbidden. But unmasking corrupt officials by posting their misdeeds on line – an increasingly common tactic – is another thing, and is encouraged.

So the spokesman for the Supreme People’s Court explained that real-name internet users – the government is trying to eliminate anonymity on the internet – who falsely accuse officials of stepping over the line could be exempted from libel charges if the post hasn’t been deliberately fabricated.

Now a hapless blogger would have to prove that the post was true, when the official in question and the power structure around him deny it. And if he fails to convince the judicial system, he would have to prove that at least it hadn’t been “deliberately fabricated.” All this when the annoyed local government comes down on him or her with its full weight in a court system rigged in favor of politics.

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