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Internet rumors to net jail in China

Expansion of restrictions follows wave of arrests

BEIJING – Spreading rumors on the Internet could get you three years in prison in China, with the penalties rising if the rumor is reposted more than 500 times or viewed by more than 5,000 people.

So says a judicial interpretation issued Monday by China’s Supreme People’s Court and Procuratorate, the first nationwide ruling of its kind.

The Chinese Communist Party has waged campaigns against rumors for years, but this is the first time existing laws against defamation and instigating instability have been formally extended to the Internet.

“In recent years, the Internet has been used to maliciously fabricate facts and damage the reputation of others and to concoct rumors that mislead the people, causing serious disruptions of social order and even mass incidents,” said Supreme Court spokesman Sun Jungong in a statement that was read live on television to maximize its effect.

Under the Chinese system, a judicial interpretation is the equivalent of a Supreme Court ruling and carries great weight. The ruling immediately drew concern from free-speech advocates who have been worried about a wave of arrests of prominent microbloggers on Sina Weibo, the wildly popular website that is billed as the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

“This is the first time the government has clarified what is illegal on the Internet,” said Liu Xiaoyuan, a prominent human rights lawyer in Beijing. “Before, there were rules governing pornography, but they had not addressed the issue of free speech on the Internet.”

Chinese censors routinely remove content they deem offensive or sensitive – postings that criticize the Communist Party or leadership, or deal with Tibet or dissident activity – but they often cannot keep up with the flood of information.

Among those swept up in a new crackdown on rumors in recent weeks is Charles Xue, a U.S. citizen with 12 million followers on Sina Weibo who regularly reposts microblogs from activists. He was charged with soliciting prostitution.

Also arrested was a 28-year-old microblogger who had exposed official corruption by examining published photographs of officials wearing luxury watches. Others were arrested for questioning the achievements of Lei Feng, an early Communist hero who is an iconic figure in the party’s propaganda about altruism.