The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemns the Chinese internet regulators for restraining people’s freedom to comment on the trial of a prominent microblogger, who admitted in court to charges of rumour-mongering on the net.
Qin Zhihui, known in cyber space by his penname as "Qinhuohuo", admitted on April 11 to charges of spreading rumors at Chaoyang District People’s Court in <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Beijing</st1:place></st1:city>. Qin was accused of creating and spreading rumors about several celebrities, including popular television hostess Yang Lan, and a former Minister of Railways who had been convicted of corruption. Qin’s trial, covering offences that he allegedly committed between December 2012 and August 2013, was televised via the microblog service Weibo.
During his trial, Qin said: “My acts were banned by law. Indeed, I misled the public about celebrities and government… There is freedom on the internet. I crossed the red line and severely damaged the reputation of others… The internet is not a place with no law, I overlooked this point. I ignored the existence of law and morals, and interrupted the normal order in the cyberspace.”
Qin was sentenced on April 17 to three years’ imprisonment. China Digital Times reported that the authorities ordered all online portals to exert strong control over any comment about Qin and “clear it up”. The authority is believed to be the State Internet Information Office.
Qin is the first person to appear in court on charges of rumour-mongering since the Ministry of Public Security vowed in August 2013 to target those who spread rumors online. Since the crackdown, police have detained a number of other suspects who are also accused of spreading rumours or posting messages online.
In September 2013, the Supreme Court and <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:city w:st="on">Procuratorate</st1:city>, <st1:country-region w:st="on">China</st1:country-region></st1:place>’s main prosecuting body, issued a judicial re-interpretation of defamation laws, saying that people will be punished if an online rumour they post is viewed by more than 5,000 internet users or reposted more than 500 times.
The IFJ said: “It is deeply regrettable that the authorities have issued an order to restrain people’s ability to exercise their freedom of opinion, even after a defendant admitted to all the charges against him. It seems that the authorities are not confident that the people will have faith that it was a fair trial.”
China’s Cleaning the Web 2014 campaign was launched on April 13 – aimed at countering the spread of pornography on the internet and illegal publications in print. However, since this campaign was first launched, the responsible departments – namely, the State Internet Information Office, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and the Ministry of Public Security – have not produced evidence to show how the online portals have breached the rules.
The IFJ said “We urge President Xi Jinping adopt the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, which have been adopted by many countries. Under the Principles, no government should restrain people’s rights unless it can show that a restriction is necessary to protect a legitimate national security interest.”
“The IFJ also urges the judges of the Chaoyang District People’s Court in Beijing, when considering Qin Zhihui’s sentence, to note that Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution enshrines people’s right to freedom of expression.”