Yesterday, the Supreme People’s Court announced a Judicial Interpretation (original/our translation) it approved ten days ago, which provides clear rules on dealing with the crime of fabricating and disseminating false and terrorizing information. With the concern about the previous Interpretation dealing with information still fresh, an immediate concern voiced by many is to which extent this is a further step to gain control over Internet communication. According to a report on Xinhua, Sun Jungong, a spokesperson for the Supreme People’s Court, the background for this new Interpretation is the following:
Since a few years, a number of criminal acts of fabricating and wilfully disseminating false and terrorizing information successively occurred in various localities nationwide. These criminal activities sometimes were for the purpose of extorting money or property, as false and terrorizing information concerning bomb threats was disseminated to shopping centres, hotels and other such enterprise and undertaking work units; sometimes, they sprang out of boredom, curiosity or for the sake of “showing off”; yet others were based on venting personal spite, retaliating against society and other such motives, false and terrorizing information that “an earthquake occurred” or “there is a bomb on an airplane”, etc., was disseminated, inducing social panic to different degrees and gravely influencing regular order in the work, production, communication, life, etc., of State organs, enterprise and undertaking work units and the popular masses, and creating extremely grave social harm. In the short four days between 15 and 18 May of this year, six incidents where false and terrorizing information about bombs was fabricated to threaten security on civil aviation occurred successively, resulting in 22 flights returning, being diverted or delayed in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other localities, and bringing grave damage to airline enterprises and the broad passengers.
Part of Article 291 of our country’s Criminal Law provides that “where bomb threats, chemical threats, radiation threats and other such terrorizing information are fabricated, or where it is clearly known that terrorizing information is fabricated and it is wilfully disseminated, gravely upsetting social order, this is punished with a fixed-term prison sentences of five years or less, detention or surveillance; where it results in grave consequences, it is punished with a prison sentence of five years or more.” No concrete provisions were made in the Criminal Law concerning appraisal standards for “gravely upsetting social order” and “resulting in grave consequences”, judicial organs’ understanding of applicable law concerning unlawful and criminal acts of fabrication and wilful dissemination of false and terrorizing information were inconsistent, leading to a lack of uniformity in law enforcement standards, making it difficult for criminal punishment to have a deterrent effect. In order to uphold social order, safeguard the security of the popular masses’ lives and property, correctly and powerfully attack this sort of unlawful and criminal activity, the Supreme People’s Court published this “Interpretation”.
In the process of drafting the “Interpretation”, the Supreme People’s Court conducted deep investigation and research, it comprehensively gathered cases, and systematically combed through the experiences accumulated in judicial practice and the problems that exist, it broadly solicited the opinions of legislative organs, administrative organs and other judicial organs, expert scholars and various other walks of society, and learned from the experience in other countries’ judicial practice, so that after repeated research and argumentation and incessant revision and perfection, the 1591st meeting of the Supreme People’s Court Trial Committee passed this “Interpretation”.
Formulating and publishing the “Interpretation” first was real need to attack criminal fabrication and wilful dissemination of false and terrorizing information. Through formulating concrete conviction and sentencing standards, it has provided a clearer judicial basis for attacking this sort of criminal activity, benefits the unification of judicial standards and standardizes judicial acts. Second, it was necessary to protect the lawful rights and interests of citizens, legal persons and other organizations, and to safeguard economic and social development and order. In public venues where people crowd together, fabricating and wilfully disseminating false and terrorizing information may easily trigger a panic, and result in tramplings, accidents and other such grave consequences. Related work units or individual citizens often must spend large amounts of human or material resources to eliminate the risk or the real damage triggered by false or terrorizing information, or suffer large economic damage. Third, there was a need to safeguard the healthy development of information networks. Following the rapid development of information technology and the spread of the network, a number of lawbreakers and criminals fabricate and disseminate false and terrorizing information through the Internet, microblogs, WeChat, instant messaging tools and other such methods, causing extremely large psychological panic among the broad information receivers, and extremely grave danger. The publication of the “Interpretation” benefits the standardization of online order and the creation of a healthy and orderly network environment.
The content of the Interpretation itself is, in content to the defamation Interpretation, very limited in scope. It only concerns false and terrorizing information as provided in Article 291 of the Criminal Law, which is defined in here as “untrue information of which the main content is bomb threats, chemical threats, radiation threats, aircraft hijacking threats, major disasters, major epidemics and other incidents gravely threatening public security, that may lead to social panic or a public security crisis.” Furthermore, the Interpretation provides more clarification with regards to two other definitions: “grave circumstances” and “grave consequences”. These outline the conditions that need to be fulfilled for criminal punishment. Mainly, these conditions include disruption to public transport or economic activity economic damage, personal injury or the upset of order in crowded public venues, such as shopping centres, stations or airports. Gauging from the three brief model cases that the SPC published together with this Interpretation, this may be where the focus point of this Interpretation is aimed.
So far, so good. Bomb threats and similar scares generally come with significant criminal penalties. In Massachusetts, a bomb threat may result in up to twenty years in prison; in the UK, the maximum is seven years. On first sight, there seems to be little within the rules that would not be excusable under generally accepted limitations and exceptions to free speech, including the Johannesburg Principles. A problem, however, may arise with the catch-all provisions that are a core feature of Chinese law, which make it possible that “untrue information [concerning] other incidents gravely threatening public security, that may lead to social panic or a public security crisis (Article 6)” that results in “grave upset to the order of lives of residents at the level of a county or higher” or “other grave consequences” can be punished with a minimum prison time of five years (Article 4). Obviously, to paraphrase Xi Jinping, the life of a law lies in its implementation, and so we shall have to see if this Interpretation is cited when dealing with mass incidents, and how the question of truthfulness of information is resolved.