Celebrities fined for online squabble over GM food

2015-06-26 09:28Global Times Editor: Li Yan

Public more divided and confused over GM after 'slanging match'

Two high-profile social media personalities that have been embroiled in an online slanging match were ordered to pay damages and publicly apologize to each other by a court in Beijing Thursday.

Anti-fraud campaigner Fang Shimin, widely known by his online name Fang Zhouzi, and former China Central Television host Cui Yongyuan were also ordered by Haidian District People's Court in Beijing to remove defamatory online posts and pay 45,000 yuan ($7,250) in damages.

Fang sued Cui in January 2014 over the GM food debate. The case was accepted in April this year and the verdict was delivered on Thursday afternoon following a morning hearing.

As the quarrel heated up over the more than two-year period, often descending into personal insults, the public debate also extended from the basic concept of GM food safety to other issues like civilized online behavior.

The court ruling stated that the online spat between Cui and Fang started in September 2013. Both had defamed each other's reputations during this time.

The court found that if the posts were factual, even if strongly worded, they would not be deemed as infringing their reputation rights. However if the accusations could not be supported by evidence, the court said these posts are illegal and ordered them to be removed.

Examples of defamatory posts included Cui saying that Fang was a cheater, a swindler and a kidnapper. Fang posted that interviewees in a documentary Cui made about GM food in the U.S. were hired by Cui to say anti-GM lines.

However, the court said that it was fine for Cui to accuse Fang of buying luxury houses in the U.S. while claiming poverty online. Fang had also said that Cui had no academic background to do GM studies and had used insulting language toward Cui's mother.

Cui released a documentary in March 2014 in which he said that even though Americans had been eating GM food for years, few know about the technology or what it was doing to them.

Fang, a controversial U.S.-educated biochemist, started to promote domestic GM food on the Internet in 2013.

Tian Zhihui, an expert at Chinese University of Communication, said that the feud was quite typical of intellectuals who get involved in online disputes.

"They get very emotional and make the problem personal and forget the boundaries of freedom of speech," said Tian.

The court said that while the pair was debating an issue of public concern, this did not mean malicious personal attacks could be protected by freedom of speech over such issues.

An expert from the Ministry of Agriculture, who requested anonymity, told the Global Times that no scientific facts can be drawn from the two outsiders' debate, which only makes the public more divided and confused.

He said that if they continue their quarrel, the debate will just descend into a slanging match.

Currently, only genetically modified cotton and papaya are approved for commercial production in China. To counter falling agricultural productivity in recent years, the Chinese government stated for the first time in January 2015 that more effort will be put into studying GM organisms.

The GM food debate is a complicated issue, due to convoluted interests involved in the industry, such as overseas firms' plan to export GM food to China, said Luo Yunbo, a food science expert at China Agricultural University.

The public still remains dubious about GM food. A survey in March 2014 on showed that 72 percent of respondents think GM food is unsafe and 22.5 percent said they are unsure about it. Only 4.8 percent of those polled believed GM food is safe. Another survey on Sina Weibo in 2013 showed that over 50 percent of over 4,000 participants said they are unsure about the safety of GM food.

Meanwhile, Cui and Fang have both stated their intentions to appeal the Thursday court ruling.

Fang told media after the hearing that he did not accept the court's decision and only sought to disseminate knowledge of GM technology and to correct rumors spread by Cui and others.

Cui described Fang as a "rogue" on his Sina Weibo Thursday.

A commentary published on the People's Daily WeChat account said that the court ruling shows clearly the two did not know where to draw the line in free speech and that both should reach a consensus on how to discuss in a civilized way in public.

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