• Doctor Li Wenliang was one of eight people reprimanded by Wuhan police for spreading “rumors”
  • When the 2019-nCoV outbreak first began, Wenliang warned former medical students of seven confirmed SARS case in a WeChat group
  • China’s Supreme Court criticized the Wuhan police for reprimanding the eight people
  • Wenliand has since said he has become infected with 2019-nCoV during his time treating patients on the frontlines

In a surprising turn of events, China’s Supreme People’s Court—the country’s highest judicial authority—criticized the Wuhan police for reprimanding eight coronavirus whistleblowers for warning about the dangers of the outbreak via the Chinese social media site WeChat. Doctor Li Wenliang was one of the eight that were reprimanded.

Doctor Li Wenliang Confirmed Coronavirus

According to Wuhan police, the eight whistleblowers were reprimanded for “spreading rumors” in the first weeks of the outbreak. On December 30, Wenliang examined the medical report of a patient and noticed similarities to SARS, also caused by a coronavirus. Wenliang decided he would share his findings with a WeChat group of former medical school classmates for them to take appropriate precautions. He sent a message in the group that read, “Seven cases of SARS confirmed.”

According to Wenliang’s Weibo, “After the news was issued, on January 3, the Public Security Bureau found me and signed a cautionary statement.” After being reprimanded, Wenliang continued working as normal on the frontline against the new mysterious pneumonia until he announced he had contracted the coronavirus. “Please rest assured that I will actively cooperate with the treatment and strive to be discharged early!”

Li Wenliang

Eight Rumormongers

On January 1, the Wuhan police announced on their Weibo that eight people had been summoned and punished for “spreading rumors” about those infected with 2019-nCoV. Wenliang and the seven others were reminded by police the “Internet is not a place outside the law.” The Chinese government has recently threatened three to seven years in prison for spreading what it deems to be “rumors” that could “disrupt social order.”

On January 9, China’s state broadcaster reported a new type of coronavirus was responsible for the alarming number of pneumonia cases. Following the broadcast, many began questioning if the alleged “rumormongers” were being persecuted for blowing the whistle. Following the report, the Wuhan police restricted viewing to the January 1 post.

The Supreme People’s Court

In a surprising turn of events, the Supreme People’s Court criticized Wuhan police for reprimanding the whistleblowers on its official WeChat account. The court wrote the initial report of seven confirmed SARS cases was a fabrication but went on to say the claim was not completely fabricated. “If the public listened to this ‘rumor’ at that time, and adopted measures such as wearing a mask, strict disinfection, and avoiding going to the wildlife market based on the panic about SARS, this may be a better way for us to prevent and control new pneumonia today,” the court wrote. The following day the Wuhan police released a statement saying the eight people had not been given warnings, fines or detention.

The document suggests law enforcement agencies fully consider the “subjective malignancy of the issues and disseminators and their ability to recognize things in the face of false information.” The eight that were reprimanded were giving information that was “basically true” without the intention to act maliciously and their information did not cause serious harm. The court went on to say the punishing the whistleblowers weakens the credibility of the Chinese government.

The court went on to write that “information disclosure is the root cause” for hysteria-inducing rumors and misinformation. Information regarding 2019-nCoV has not been disclosed to the public in a timely and opaque fashion, which in turn leads people to obtain whatever information is available from any source they can find. The best way to combat rumors is for the government to release reliable information to confront rumors with reality, a practice that is at times non-existent in regards to the government of China.

A Health Emergency In The Time Of Self-Media

China is dealing with two separate issues. First, is the initial health emergency caused by 2019-nCoV and second is dealing with that emergency in the age of “self-media.” The court notes that self-media did not exist in the SARS period. State media was basically the only source of information. Social media sites like Weibo and WeChat played a major role in information regarding 2019-nCoV being able to spread to the masses quickly. The court wrote, “any attempt to hide the truth is futile, and traditional information control measures are difficult to implement effectively.”

On the one hand, this is a sign that Chinese society is becoming more mature, more free, and more open. On the other hand, this freedom also provides media soil for the dissemination of false information. this is the first time we have encountered such a major public health event in a self-media environment, and this complex situation is also an issue of the times that we must face in the process of national governance today.

The Supreme People’s Court

The court also addressed what rumors are subject to legal crackdown. An example given was “if there was no epidemic situation in a certain place and the information about the occurrence of the epidemic situation in the place is fabricated, thus causing social disorder.” Taking the same example, if some of the information spread is considered false but contributes to raising awareness of self-protection then the false information should only be combatted against facts. The publishers “should mainly be criticized and educated, supplemented by administrative punishment, and criminal punishment is not considered in non-extreme situations.”

Questioning The Chinese Government’s Response

Another issue China’s government has tried to control is the disapproval in social media posts regarding the government’s response to the outbreak. Spreading what has been deemed “fabricated information” about the country’s inability to control the epidemic “should be dealt with seriously according to law, and criminal prosecution should be conducted if necessary.”

The court did address that the public has major concerns regarding the treatment of diseases, shortage of necessary equipment for medical personnel and the ability of medical institutions to treat illnesses such as 2019-nCoV. “For expression, relevant experts, scholars, or professionals conducting academic criticism on the above issues are also within the scope of freedom of speech and should be protected by law according to law,” the document read. However, the court went on to say “information on the handling of the epidemic and the treatment of the disease should absolutely be based on the country’s authoritative information channel.”

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