Media regulation

SMS-gate II: High school edition

Special report: county police smash SMS libel ring.
Like Qin Zhongfei's case in Pengshui, the Wuhe County Middle School libel case started with an SMS.

Here's the story as it has been reported in most mainstream media:

In March of this year, the organization department of Wuhe County put up the party secretary of a machine factory to be principal of Middle School #1. Mr. Zhang, the candidate who at that time was serving as acting principal, did not pass initial assessment, so the organization department launched a second round.

Some teachers at the school were upset with what they saw as an attempt to install someone as principal who was manifestly not suited for the job. Li Maoyu and Dong Guoping, two teachers with over 20 years experience apiece and loads of awards and citations between them, attempted to express their reservations to the organization department, the education department, and other government agencies. After no one responded to their complaints, they composed short poems mocking principal Zhang's lack of ability and the craven self-preservation of the organization department. The poems (not translated here) were sent out as SMS messages to various levels of the county leadership.

Officials were not pleased.

· 18 August: Li's home and office searched. Police interrogate and search Dong, and seize his personal property.
· 25 August: Li and Dong ordered to be fined 500 yuan each and held for 10 days on charges of libel and directing others to send SMS messages. When it is discovered that Li was a People's Congress representative, he is temporarily released.
· 4 September, Li demoted and removed from his post as chairman of the school's workers' union.
· 11 September: Wuhe County People's Congress committee agrees to the decision to hold Li for 10 days.
· 12 September: Li begins ten days of detention.

In the midst of this, the county TV station broadcast a report on the libel case (image at top):

Recently, meticulous investigation by the county PSB broke open a libel case in which anonymous mobile phone text messages spread rumors and caused harm to other individuals. Since March of this year, during the county organization department's process of assessing and recommending candidates for the principal and leadership team of Wuhe Middle School #1, parties involved received a series of anonymous SMS messages that maliciously distorted the impartiality of the organization department in the process of recommending and inspecting the MS#1 leadership team, and that libeled the MS#1 principal as well as the county committee leadership.

The distribution of the message included the leadership of the city and provincial committees as well as government departments, and within the scope of our county in particular, most cadres from the county leadership to mid-level officials received similar messages, generating an extremely negative influence on the teaching contingent of MS#1 as well as all sectors of society. Reaction to this has been fierce throughout the county. To discover the senders of the anonymous SMS, attack their illegal arrogance, put the mood of society back in order, and protect the political stability of our county, when the county PSB received reports from the victims, it commenced a far-ranging investigation and at one stroke broke this case.

The county PSB revealed that this a serious transgression, one that has organization, planning, and high-tech methods, one that spreads rumors and libel, distorts the truth, slanders other individuals, and attacks the system. At present, government departments have given appropriate treatment to the perpetrators uncovered in this case. The county public security organs are in the process of imposing penalties on those involved and, depending on the behavior of those involved and the conditions of the case itself, reserve the right to impose criminal punishment on them.

Last week the case came to national attention, and opinion pieces have appeared in print and online, almost uniformly lambasting the local government for suppressing dissent.

Information Times commentator Chun Hua asks, "Was the county leadership involved in libeling its citizens?":

In a country ruled by law, citizens who are depressed by tendencies they think unright have many avenues for reconciliation. The Constitution of the People's Republic of China provides citizens of China with "freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of demonstration." However, the paternalistic officials of Wuhe County, Anhui, and Pengshui County, Chongqing, don't appear to believe this. The news that "two teachers in Wuhe County unhappy with the assignment of a principal sent SMS to the county leadership and were detained, demoted, and dismissed," describes an image of leaders and functionaries who are more stubborn than the constitution.

An "SMS libel case" is not an easy one to direct, and the conclusion is fraught with danger - the Wuhe County leadership fully understands this point. So I am more inclined to believe that the punishment of these two teachers is actually intimidation against the public. The county leadership is not ignorant of the fact that a message that is not widely disseminated is actually a report, a report made by a People's Congress representative, and one could even see it as the exercise of one's duty. However, a failing, corrupt local government does not like the submission of reports or performance of righteous actions. Why were the county leaders more willing to take down two well-loved, outstanding teachers than allow a complete stranger to academic administration exit the school? This is one question. Why were the leaders willing to break the law themselves, and let those who respect the law be punished? This is another question.

On Kaixian Writers' Net, Chen Chun cites Niemöller, and says "Maybe, when facing these abominable situations in which power infringes on the people's rights, it is a disgrace for those who believe themselves uninvolved to stay silent, since the rights of those few individuals are the rights of us all, yes, every single person."

One curious similarity between this case and the one in Pengshui is that both Qin Zhongfei and these two teachers sent their SMS complaints in verse form. Commentator Xie Hongjun elaborates in a post on the Rednet forum:

First, that people use today's high-tech, mobile phones as a means of expressing their disappointment, dissatisfaction, and anger says that local avenues for speech are quite narrow; normal channels for expressing opinions are lacking. The chaos of the city government reflected in Qin Zhongfei's poem was a product of a failure of municipal policy. As a public servant, and as a city resident, he naturally had the right to hold a different opinion. But perhaps he had no avenue to express his opinion, to have an influence at a policy level. The two outstanding teachers with more than 20 years of experience (including one who was a legislator) faced the same problem. Their reservations about the qualifications of the person chosen as principal were expressed to the organization department, the disciplinary inspection committee, and some of the county leadership, but they still had no way to convince the leadership to recall the order to send a principal over from the factory. Facing a situation where "the will of heaven is always hard to fathom," mobile phone SMS provided them with a swift, direct, unobstructed way to communicate. And the ambiguity of complaints in poetic form is one of the results of frequent suppression of the public's expression of opinions.

Second, the local government did not hesitate to use the public's rights to put strong pressure on this form of public expression. In the subsequent analysis of legal experts, Qin Zhongfei's case did not meet the legal requirements for libel, but as things actually happened, libel was used to increase his blame, and proper procedure was not followed. Wuhe County brought together the PSB, inspectors, and the People's Congress, as well as the media (the local TV station) - these departments, which ought to keep each other in check, were highly united in scope, highly united in action. From this we can see that the local political environment has a high concentration of power. Eradication of differing views to a degree the equal of the "literary inquisitions" brought by nepotistic emperors hundreds or thousands of years ago.....[In the TV broadcast], the combative language is a relic of the Cultural Revolution. "Protect the political stability of our county" - putting such a massive label on a few lines of doggerel is really quite funny, when you think about it.

Accompanying its report on Saturday, The Beijing News ran an opinion piece titled, "A harmonious society requires respect for the people's right of expression":

Undoubtedly, the Internet and SMS create unprecedented opportunities for the construction of public space in China. But these two episodes in which SMS-senders have been arrested and fined demonstrate that the appearance of the "SMS inquisition" is no random occurrence.

What is more difficult to understand is why one of the teachers who was arrested, one who was a People's Congress representative, did not use his standing as a representative to express his reservations about this affair, but rather chose to furtively compose poems Did he forget what sort of power he had? As a legal expert has pointed out, a representative has special protections. Detention or arrest of representatives must follow a strict legal procedure; otherwise, the agency that detains or arrests a representative is in violation of the law and is subject to prosecution. The problem is that when public security moved to arrest him, he still did not state that he had this special privilege, but rather relied on discovery by a sharp-eyed officer, and was only released after a report was made to higher-ups.

A cryptic note at the end of Saturday's report in The Beijing News quotes a male teacher at MS#1 who felt that these reports were a bit one-sided. The teacher, who was unwilling to give his name, said that Li and Dong had set up a house that they used to send a large volume of slanderous messages, not only to the county leadership but to the principal and teachers as well.

Yesterday's Beijing Times ferreted out some more details. In earlier reports, there were some murmurs that one or both of the two teachers charged had been angling for the job of principal themselves and had retaliated when they were passed over for a factory party secretary. Wuhe County vice-mayor Gui Jiaqi told BT that Li Maoyu had nominated himself for principal and had gathered a number of people in support, but ultimately only received 15% of the vote at the recommendation meeting. Acting principal Zhang was the top vote-getter and moved into the assessment phase.

The county police also provided a more thorough explanation:

Wuhe County PSB legal department head Hua Dongmei explained the case in detail.

She said that on 28 April, Wuhe County PSB received a report from Wuhe MS#1 acting principal Zhang claiming that he had received a large number of anonymous libelous SMS messages, following which the PSB started investigating the case.

According to the explanation, Wuhe County PSB's four-month investigation and evidence-gathering clarified the case: from March to July, suspect Li Maoyu colluded with Dong Guoping and directed two other faculty members to use six anonymous phone numbers to compose 20 SMS messages and send more than 300 anonymous copies to Wuhe MS#1 faculty, county-level officials, and provincial and city-level department leaders. The content was mainly that MS#1 acting principal Zhang "shopped for votes," "solicited prostitutes," "was morally deficient," "took bribes," "was a hoodlum", and criticized county government departments as "raping public opinion" and accepting pay-offs. This caused serious injury to the individuals involved, and created negative influences both within and without the county. Li Maoyu and other suspects confessed to this without evading anything.

The Wuhe County PSB believes that these were actions taken by a criminal conspiracy with a motive and high-tech methods, and the facts and details of the case are enough to amount to serious infringement of character and reputation. Bearing in mind the special status of the suspects as people's teachers, the public security organs made a report to the county committee. The county committee requested that the public security organs act according to the law, and conduct a strict investigation and exact prudent punishments. Following this, public security, acting in accordance with relevant laws and regulations, put Li Maoyu and Dong Guoping in administrative detention for 10 days and fined them 500 yuan. Since Li Maoyu was a county People's Congress representative, the county supervision departments first demoted Li Maoyu one level, and the county department of education together with Wuhe MS#1 removed Li Maoyu from his position as chair of the Wuhe MS#1 workers' union in accordance with the law, before he was legally detained.

The BT reporter also spoke with Li Maoyu, who denied acting in concert with anyone. Instead, he said that "during the period when the county organization department was performing its assessment of Zhang, there were not just three or four people sending messages - at the time, lots of people were debating this over SMS." Li also denied sending any messages to province or city-level officials, and said that though he couldn't provide any specific proof, it was common knowledge that Zhang was a drunken letch.

The reporter then took these words back to the Wuhe police:

Yesterday, this reporter brought the two teachers' narratives to Wuhe County's side for confirmation. "They can't evade this. They've both admitted it, and have signed their written statements," the officer in charge of this case, Wuhe County PSB captain Shen Sijun, told this reporter, whereupon he faxed the written statements to this paper.

In Li Maoyu's written statement, he admits to sending messages to ten department leaders and a few MS#1 faculty members; this differed greatly from what he told this paper's reporter.

Ironically, on 24 August, the day before Li and Dong were ordered detained, Wuhe MS#1 was notified that the county standing committee had removed principal Zhang from his position.

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