PRC jails citizen journalist for four years over Wuhan virus reporting
A Chinese court has sentenced a citizen journalist who reported from Wuhan at the peak of the coronavirus outbreak to four years in jail on the grounds of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” her lawyer said.
Zhang Zhan, 37, was among a handful of people whose firsthand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets painted a more dire picture of the pandemic epicenter than the official narrative.
“I don’t understand. All she did was say a few true words, and for that she got four years,” said Shao Wenxia, Zhang’s mother, who attended the trial held in late December 2020 in Shanghai’s Pudong district.
“Ms. Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech,” Zhang’s lawyer, Ren Quanniu, said before the trial.
Critics say the People’s Republic of China (PRC) arranged for Zhang’s trial to take place during the Western holiday season to minimize attention and scrutiny. (Pictured: Pro-democracy activists call for the release of jailed citizen journalist Zhang Zhan during a demonstration outside the People’s Republic of China’s liaison office in Hong Kong on December 27, 2020.)
In a tweet, the United Nations human rights office called for Zhang’s release.
“We raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020 as an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to #COVID19 & continue to call for her release,” it said.
Criticism of the PRC’s early handling of the crisis has been censored and whistleblowers such as doctors warned. A year after the outbreak, the virus has infected nearly 83 million people worldwide, killing more than 1.8 million, according to Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
Police enforced tight security outside the court where the trial opened seven months after Zhang’s detention, although some supporters were undeterred. One man wrote her name on a poster to demonstrate support before police escorted him away.
Foreign journalists were denied entry to the court “due to the epidemic,” security officials said.
A former lawyer, Zhang arrived in Wuhan on February 1, 2020, from her home in Shanghai. Her short video clips uploaded to YouTube consist of interviews with residents, commentary and footage of a crematorium, train stations, hospitals and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. She was detained in mid-May and went on a hunger strike in late June, court documents show. Her lawyers told the court that police strapped her hands and force-fed her with a tube. By December 2020, she was suffering headaches, stomach pain, low blood pressure and a throat infection.
Other citizen journalists who have disappeared in the PRC without explanation include Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua.
While there has been no news of Fang, Li reemerged in a YouTube video in April 2020 to say he was forcibly quarantined. Chen has been released but reportedly is under surveillance and has not spoken publicly.