|A CCTV screengrab taken on Tuesday shows Xiang Nanfu confessing to fabricating news. Photo: GT|
Detained ‘citizen journalist’ confesses to provoking trouble with online posts
A 62-year-old Beijing resident has been detained for posting false information on a foreign website that "misled the public and seriously harmed the country's image," authorities announced on Tuesday. The move signaled the upgraded crackdown on Internet rumors has reached beyond national borders.
Lawyers said websites, even located in overseas regions, may not escape legal responsibilities if they fail to verify the truth in stories they carry.
Xiang Nanfu was put under criminal detention for allegedly "provoking troubles" on May 3, according to a statement the Ministry of Public Security published on its Sina Weibo on Tuesday.
Xiang has published many false stories on US-based Chinese website "Boxun" (boxun.com) since 2009 under the username "Feixiang," which means "flying" in Chinese, it said. In 2013 alone, Xiang posted more than 1,300 articles, nearly a third of the stories the website published that year.
His articles claimed that the "Chinese government removed organs from living people and buried people alive, triggering mass protest outside organizations of the United Nations in China," and "Over 1,000 policemen violently expropriated land and a pregnant woman was beaten to death in the dispute."
These stories twisted facts or were fabricated, which seriously damaged China's image and caused an extremely negative impact after being forwarded many times by overseas media, the statement said.
Xiang confessed to his crimes and expressed his regret, China Central Television reported.
"Xiang's detention showed that China's crackdown on Internet rumors targeted the whole network, which is without national boundaries," Beijing-based lawyer Yi Shenghua told the Global Times.
Authorities launched a campaign in August last year targeting online rumormongers, arresting a number of Internet celebrities, including Xue Charles Bi-chuen, also known as Xue Manzi, whose Weibo account has more than 11 million followers.
In April, blogger Qin Zhihui was jailed for three years by a Beijing court for defamation and "provoking trouble."
The police said that Xiang's case is still under investigation. Yi believes that his sentencing will not be heavier than Qin's.
As for whether Boxun will also take legal responsibility for this case, Yi said it is unusual for a government rather than a person or organization to sue a website over defamation.
However, the website is responsible for verifying the information it carries, even though it may not be able to make 100 percent sure, Yi said.
Xiang, an unemployed junior high school graduate, first published an article on Boxun in 2004 complaining about compensation over his demolished home. He came to know a person surnamed Wei, who was in charge of the website. Wei suggested Xiang publish more "complaint" articles and promised high payment, according to the police.
"I know he [Wei] was using me to make trouble for the government on the Internet, while I wanted to earn some money and gain a reputation," Xiang said. Xiang had committed crimes several times before, including being sentenced to nine years in prison for theft, police said.
"If his motives are to damage the country's image and stir people's dissatisfaction toward government by spreading rumors, then his behavior might endanger national security and he could get a heavier sentence," Yi said. However, Xiang was detained for allegedly "provoking troubles."
Yi said the charge of "provoking troubles" was not proper in Xiang's case, as it lacks clarity in defining the scope of the crime. He believes Xiang should receive an administrative penalty instead.
Boxun issued a statement on its website on Tuesday, protesting the arrest of Xiang, whom it described as a "Boxun reporter," and claimed that it had always sought to report the facts.
"We have limited resources and have depended on volunteer reporters. We've never used high payment to gain reports," it said, adding that Xiang had never "actively" sought payment from the website.
Boxun.com was founded in 2000 and is blocked in China. It is known for running sensational stories including petitions, unrest, and alleged corruption by senior Chinese officials.
Boxun was involved in a defamation law suit filed by Chinese film star Zhang Ziyi in 2013. It later apologized to Zhang and admitted it had never confirmed the allegations about Zhang sleeping with senior officials and wealthy businessmen for $115 million.
"It has become common practice that some people visit foreign websites to learn about sensitive information that is seldom published on domestic websites," said Wang Zhanyang, director of the Political Science Department at the Central Institute of Socialism.
However, it doesn't mean false information could easily fool Net users because people have developed their screening ability in telling the difference, Wang said.