China now has a number of laws and regulations that specify punishments for rumormongers, including the Criminal Law, the Law on Public Security Administration Punishments and the Regulations on Information Services on the Internet.
According to the Law on Public Security Administration Punishments, enacted in 2006, spreading misinformation and false reports is punishable by five to 10 days in jail for disturbing public order. Culprits also face fines of up to 500 yuan ($82).
"Users of the Internet should assume the same legal responsibilities as they would in the real world," said Cheng Bin, a lawyer with Beijing-based Guandao Law Firm, adding that citizens should fulfill their obligations of maintaining online order while enjoying their right to free speech.
"Freedom and responsibility are inseparable in the field of information transmission," said Liao Shengqing, Dean of the Communications Department at the Journalism School at Shanghai-based Fudan University. "Citizens should shoulder social liabilities when reposting and sharing information."
Liao said that people should express their views on the Internet within the scope allowed by law, adding that legal procedures should be established to combat the spreading of false rumors.
The value of transparency
According to observations of Wu Chenguang, Director of Sohu.com's News Center, false rumors travel especially fast in times of natural disasters and other mass incidents.
For example, soon after downpours hit Beijing on July 21, 2012, Internet users began sharing photos of severe flooding that had been taken years earlier.
"Such false rumors have an extremely harmful influence," Wu said, adding that the government's slow pace in releasing information has allowed Internet users to spread their rumors more easily.
Peking University's Cheng agreed. She said that official delays in releasing information on issues people find important is one of the main reasons why false rumors spread on the Internet so successfully.
"Nowadays, most government departments prefer to debunk fake news after it's been circulating than to disclose the truth upfront," Cheng said, warning that such delays weaken the authority of official information and provide an opportunity for people with bad intentions to spread rumors, especially online.
On May 3, a woman fell off from the seventh floor of a shopping mall in Beijing and was confirmed dead by the police.
After that, a micro-blogger wrote seven shopping mall security guards raped the woman before she was thrown off the building, and that the police refused to investigate. Hundreds of people crowded outside the mall on May 8, calling on the police to investigate the case.
On May 9, Beijing police confirmed that the woman's death was a suicide and said that no evidence was found to indicate she was raped or poisoned.
"In this case, the police failed to prevent false rumors from the beginning and someone exploited that in order to set off public speculation," Cheng said. "The false rumor was further damage to the deceased and her family, as well as disturbing public order."
If police authorities published more information about the case soon after they came to the conclusion, maybe similar rumors would be reduced and even prevented, she added.
"Each government department should constantly disclose truthful information in situations that the public may be doubtful or be confused about, instead of ignoring the public's questions and concealing vital details," Cheng said. "The more detailed information authorities disclose, the fewer misunderstandings and rumors there will be."
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