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China's Top Court Outlines Legal Limits to Online Speech
Summary:The new legal interpretation also clarified other points of law related to how the crimes of

September 10, 2013
Translated by Tian Shaohui and Pang Lei

As of today, if an online post that defames another person is viewed more than 5,000 times, the person who authored it could face up to three years in prison, according to a new legal interpretation jointly issued by China's Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate yesterday afternoon.

China's top two legal authorities unveiled the new legal interpretation at a joint press conference that was televised live on the state broadcaster.

According to the text of the interpretation, if an online post that defames another individual is viewed more than 5,000 times or forwarded in excess of 500 times, than the courts can treat this as a "serious case" (情节严重) and in keeping with article 246 of China's Criminal Law, a person found guilty of this crime can be detained, stripped of their political rights or sentenced to up to three years in prison.

Aside from clearly stating what constitutes a "serious case" of defamation in an online context, the legal interpretation also made clear what it means to "seriously endanger social order and national interests" (严重危害社会秩序和国家利益) in an online context.

According to article 246 of the Criminal Law, people suspected of committing defamation can only be investigated if they are sued, but there is an exception for cases that are considered to involve a grave threat to public order or national interests.

The new interpretation lists seven points that outline what this might mean in terms of online speech.

The points refer to posts that caused a "mass incident," public disorder, ethnic or religious disputes, many people to be defamed and had a severe negative impact on society, damage to the national image or serious harm to the national interest, a severe negative impact internationally or severe harm to social order and the national interest.

The new legal interpretation also clarified other points of law related to how the crimes of "creating a disturbance" (寻衅滋事犯罪), the crime of extortion or blackmail (敲诈勒索犯罪) and the crime of illegal business operations (非法经营犯罪) should be interpreted and punished when they are carried out online.

The court and the procuratorate also offered guidance in relation to the kinds of sentences and punishments that can be handed down in such cases.

Sun Jungong (孙军工), a spokesperson with the Supreme People's Court, said during yesterday's press conference that people who post information about official corruption which is later found to contain factual errors will not be held legally liable as long as they did not make up the information in order to intentionally harm another party.

In recent months, a number of government officials have been suspended from their posts and even charged following revelations made public via the internet.

In late 2012, the Deputy Managing Editor of Caijing Magazine posted three updates to his Sina Weibo account, alleging that Liu Tienan (刘铁男), who at the time was a former Director of the National Energy Administration and a Deputy Director of the country's top economic planning agency, had misrepresented his academic qualifications and was involved in improper dealings with business associates. Liu has been removed from his position and his case has been passed to judicial authorities.

Song Lin (宋林), chairman of China Resources (Holdings) Company Limited (华润集团), was also recently accused of dereliction of duty and corruption by Wang Wenzhi (王文志), a senior journalist with Xinhua News Agency's Economic Information Daily. Song denied the charges and no formal investigation into the charges has been announced.

Links and Sources
The Supreme Court of the PRC: New rules create online rumor "straitjacket"
SPP: 两高发布办理网络诽谤等刑案的司法解释 同一诽谤信息被转发500次以上构成诽谤罪
SPP: 两高发布关于办理网络诽谤等刑事案件适用法律若干问题的解释
SPP: 两高负责人就办理网络诽谤等刑案司法解释答问

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