Chinese authorities are misusing the law as they seek to press criminal charges against netizens detained for "spreading rumors online," lawyers said this week.
"There is no definition in law for what constitutes a rumor, so this means we are talking about an issue with freedom of expression," rights lawyer Ma Gangquan said in an interview following dozens of detentions for "rumor-mongering" across China in recent weeks.
"If they have genuinely infringed on anyone's rights ... then it should be up to the victim of that infringement to sue them," he said.
"The government shouldn't be using its power as public prosecutor to act on behalf of so-called victims."
He said until the government gave a clear legal definition of a rumor, the detentions and punishments that resulted lacked legitimacy.
Greatest step backwards
Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Sui Muqing said the police and government should have little jurisdiction over the flow of online information, even if it is wildly inaccurate.
"The Criminal Law and the Punishments Law touch on rumors in two places, where obvious, deliberate, and direct harm has been done to society," Sui said.
"In cases where someone has been harmed, it's not for the government to prosecute."
Sui said he saw the current war on "rumor" as the greatest step backwards for the rule of law in China since economic reforms began in 1979.
Yuan Yulai, a rights lawyer from the eastern province of Zhejiang, said the war on rumor largely appeared to target online dissent and criticism.
"They shouldn't be using illegal tactics to arrest netizens who blow the whistle [on wrongdoing] using their real names, just because they think it's inappropriate, or it makes them uncomfortable," Yuan said.
"If they do that, then it could have the opposite effect to the one they intended."
A double standard
Netizens have hit out at the nationwide campaign after a string of highly publicized cases.
"These have all been like every other campaign before this one; they all have the same aim of curbing public freedom of speech," Fujian-based blogger and online activist Peter Guo said in a recent interview.
According to Guo, when the authorities themselves get online information wrong, the rules are very different than for regular Internet users.
"A few days ago, the Beijing police put out a photo of an anti-prostitution campaign from a few years ago and made out that it was a recent photo," he said. "They were reported by netizens."
"[By their own standards], they should have been detained, but instead all they did was issue an apology on their microblog account and that was that," Guo said.
String of cases
In recent weeks, the authorities detained Fu Xuesheng, accused of "fabricating" a sex scandal at the state-owned China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), as well as netizens who posted information to social media about the transfer of a local official, sparking a mass protest in the northern province of Shaanxi.
On Aug. 29, authorities in the central province of Hubei detained a man for "fabricating information and disturbing social order" after he reported that seven people had died in a road accident, when the authorities put the death toll at three.
Beijing's "Regional Platform for Jointly Refuting Rumors" which monitors "false" information online, published a list of China's "Top 10 Online Rumors" on Thursday.
They included a rumor that "infant soup" made of babies' bodies was being sold in the southern province of Guangdong, "news" of a bus kidnap in the eastern province of Anhui, and an alleged rape-and-murder spree by six escaped prisoners.
However, some of the "rumors" listed sound similar to news stories already confirmed by RFA, including raids and beatings by "police" with uniforms but no ID cards.
Reported by Xin Yu and Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.