The "microblog" twitter equivalents in China like weibo are more popular than ever, but they are also increasingly risky. Nervous public officials are imposing harsh sentences to those who send out bad bits of information, and requiring
BEIJING - It's dangerous to be a Chinese microblogger these days. Every time there's a rumor about a matter of public concern, someone ends up in a prison or a reeducation camp.
Take for example the other day when the spokesman of China's Ministry of Health denied a "rumor of a SARS case in Baoding City in north China" that has been circulating in recent days. He said instead that it has been verified as a type 55 adenovirus-caused respiratory infection. Meanwhile, the Baoding City Public Security Bureau's website announced that a person named Liu who first posted the rumor has already been sent to a labor camp for reeducation.
A rumor about a SARS case being found in Baoding certainly caused the public authority some trouble. Whether or not the person who posted the news on a microblog deserves to be sent to a labor camp is quite another matter. Press reports quoted Liu's admission to having forwarded the information without confirming it first, in order to attract more attention to his web page. But he did not fabricate the information, he merely disseminated the unconfirmed rumor.
According to the provisions of China's Emergency Response Law, "Whoever fabricates and spreads false information about accidents or emergencies ... is to be punished accordingly." From a legal point of view, the nature of the punishment is based on the perpetrator being subjectively "aware of" spreading false information.
In the case of Liu, he was indeed told by other people that there was a SARS case found in a hospital of Baoding. Even if he posted the information without verifying it, his intention was to alert the public. He shouldn't have been punished for that. And he certainly shouldn't be facing two years of hard labor!
One can't help but worry about citizen's freedom of speech and their right to monitor the government. This is a double denial of people's right to be informed and to supervise public authority.
Don't repeat history
The Chinese public often has very limited access to information about unexpected events. Too often, the Chinese government conceals the truth with a litany of excuses. We might as well take the SARS epidemic of 2003 as an example. At that time, while the public had all heard about the outbreak, senior officials were still blatantly lying at press conferences, causing some people not to take preventative measures in time.
So what is there now to convince the public that there wasn't another case found in Baoding? How do people protect themselves if the government announces it too late again?
In addition, one ought not to expect a citizen to confirm information before forwarding it. It is the government's job to prevent rumors by disclosing the correct information in a timely manner.
China's regulators obviously do not care about the rights of the people. Worse still, instead of curbing illegal acts afterwards, they are now preventing them in advance. The compulsory registration of microbloggers' accounts under their real names hangs like a black cloud over web users' heads. The most likely consequences of this new system, which started in Beijing last December and is set to expand across China on March 16th, is that many Chinese people will be imposing self-censorship as they will fear the supervision of the government and civil servants.
From now on, anyone online who dares denounce or criticize any government officer will risk being identified by unscrupulous officials. He or she risks being sent to a labor camp or being "made mad" and sent to a psychiatric ward. Who will dare challenge the authorities and government officials again?
Read the original article in Chinese
Photo - jon crel