China is stepping up its efforts to halt “online rumour-mongering” as part of a broader crackdown on social media, which Chinese people are using more and more to sidestep censorship of political debate.
Anyone who posts slanderous comments online in China, which has the world’s biggest online population, will face up to three years in prison if their statements are widely reposted, according to a ruling from China’s top court and its top prosecutor.
They will face charges if online rumours they create are visited by more than 5,000 internet users or re-tweeted more than 500 times.
“People have been hurt and reaction in society has been strong, demanding with one voice serious punishment by the law for criminal activities like using the internet to spread rumours and defame people,” People’s Supreme Court spokesman Sun Jungong said during a live news conference on the People’s Daily website.
“No country would consider the slander of other people as ‘freedom of speech’,” Sun said.
China has over 591 million internet users and routinely censors the internet by blocking access to websites with pornography, gambling and content critical of the Communist Party’s rule.
Twitter and Facebook are banned, but netizens flock to domestic social media, such as Weibo, and often post comments critical of local government officials or broader state policy.
Users of Weibo reacted to the ruling with anger. “Who is going to dare to post anything negative now?” wrote one online poster.
Among the serious cases the government is trying to crack down on are the spreading of false information that causes protests, ethnic or religious unrest or has a “bad international effect”.
President Xi Jinping’s newly installed government has been clamping down on dissent, and there have been many detentions in recent months for “rumour-mongering”.
They include a man who slandered a group of war heroes from World War Two, and another who wrote negative remarks about the Communist icon Lei Feng.
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