China said authorities could jail web users for as much as three years if they post comments deemed defamatory, in a legal interpretation that defines punishments for people who violate government Internet controls.
People face imprisonment if the defamatory rumors they post online are read by more than 5,000 people, reposted more than 500 times or cause the subjects to hurt themselves, commit suicide or “experience mental disorders,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Xinhua cited an interpretation released yesterday by the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate.
China’s Communist Party has sought to exert its control over the Internet as microblogs and smartphones make information harder to censor and activists use the web to accuse officials of corruption. Authorities have required real names be used to sign up for Internet connections, called on web companies to create a “healthy” online environment and pushed state-owned media to expand their online services.
“With the backing of the law, this Internet crackdown campaign will no longer be a tiger without teeth,” Zhao Jing, an activist in Beijing for Internet Freedom in China, said in an interview. “For a long time the Internet was a place to expose corruption. Now the local government can use this defamation law as a tool to crack down on such activities.”
Social media sites including Sina Corp.’s microblogging Weibo service have become platforms used by Chinese citizens to expose corruption and wrongdoing in a country where all domestic newspapers, television and radio stations are state-owned. The largest service providers on China’s Internet aren’t under government ownership.
China, home to more than 591 million Web users by the end of June, censors the Internet by blocking access to websites with pornography, gambling and content critical of the Communist Party’s rule.
China’s Internet is “not a space outside the law,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing today in response to a question about the legal interpretation. “The actions taken by the Chinese government on the Internet have been highly supported by the Chinese Internet users.”
A vice chairman of China’s economic planning agency was fired in May after a Chinese journalist posted allegations of improper business dealings on his microblog. Another official, Yang Dacai, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for graft this month after Internet users spotted pictures of him wearing expensive watches and began investigating him through crowd-sourcing efforts.
Liu Qi, a Beijing-based spokesman for Sina, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail and text message asking what actions the site was taking to respond to the judicial interpretation. Sina and Baidu Inc. were among the Chinese Internet companies that jointly created a website in August for refuting rumors.
China has sought to tighten control of information spread through microblog services and social media through a series of crackdowns. In March 2012, the comment functions on Sina and Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s microblog services were halted for 72 hours after authorities detained six people for spreading rumors of a coup attempt in Beijing.
The legal interpretation released yesterday “will make people think twice, especially people with lots of followers, before going public with sloppily sourced news,” said Doug Young, author of the book “The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China.
The eastern province of Zhejiang investigated 118 people who spread online rumors and false information, the provincial police said in a web statement in August.
The Beijing police detained a journalist surnamed Liu who allegedly created and spread rumors, according to the official police account on Sina Weibo.
Xinhua reported yesterday that those charged with ‘‘defamation’’ also could be deprived of their political rights.
‘‘Authorities in the future could selectively use this as a tool to punish people,’’ said Pu Zhiqiang, a civil rights lawyers in Beijing specializing in libel cases and press freedom. ‘‘But this can’t last long, say if you do arrest all the people spreading rumors, would you have a big enough jail to hold up all of them?’’