Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was on Monday sentenced to four years in prison, after being found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”– a charge that the country’s authoritarian government often levels against activists.
Zhang, 37, is among several citizen journalists who are facing backlash from the Chinese regime for covering the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
Who is Zhang Zhan?
Zhang, a former lawyer from Shanghai, is one among the many journalists and professionals who travelled to Wuhan in February this year, when the coronavirus outbreak in China was at its peak. According to a New York Times report, this was the period when the Chinese government was busy tackling the virus, and thus the country’s strict censorship regime had become relatively more relaxed.
During an interview recorded before her arrest, Zhang said she travelled to Wuhan after coming across an online post by a local resident describing the living conditions in the city during the pandemic.
While in Wuhan, Zhang reported from various parts of the city, its crowded hospitals, and also documented the arrests of journalists and harassment meted out to the families of those seeking accountability, a BBC report said.
Zhang offered a scathing criticism of the Chinese government while reporting from the city, while also questioning its propaganda. She recorded live videos and wrote articles despite receiving threats from officials, and her work gained significant traction on social media.
Zhang had also been arrested in 2019 for speaking in support of activists in Hong Kong.
A New York Times report quoted Zhang saying in the last video before her arrest, “The government’s way of managing this city has just been intimidation and threats. This is truly the tragedy of this country.”
Then, on May 14, Zhang went missing, and it became known a day later that she had been arrested by authorities in faraway Shanghai, according to the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a rights group.
In November, Zhang was formally charged, and the chargesheet accused her of sending “false information through text, video and other media through WeChat, Twitter and YouTube”. WeChat is a popular messaging app in China, and many use Twitter and YouTube through virtual private networks (VPNs), since both these apps are officially blocked in that country.
Zhang was also accused of accepting interviews with foreign media and “maliciously spreading” information about the coronavirus in Wuhan. Authorities recommended a sentence of 4-5 years, and the trial took place behind closed doors.
According to her lawyers, Zhang has been on hunger strike for several months to protest against her arrest, and is in poor health. One of her lawyers said she had been force-fed using a feeding tube, and her hands restrained so that she cannot pull the tube out.
Media freedoms during the pandemic
Human rights activists have blamed China for punishing Zhang with a heavy four-year sentence.
According to the BBC, other citizen journalists who reported from Wuhan and also went missing earlier this year include Li Zehua, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin. Among the three, Li has reappeared, and has said that he was quarantined forcibly. Chen is believed to be living with her family under government supervision, and Fang’s whereabouts are still unknown, the report said.
On Tuesday, a day after Zhang was sentenced, both the US and the EU denounced China’s court system. In a statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “The United States strongly condemns the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) sham prosecution and conviction of citizen journalist Zhang Zhan on December 28. We call on the PRC government to release her immediately and unconditionally.”
In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s lies, Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan’s uncensored reports from Wuhan gave the world a much-needed window into the outbreak of COVID-19. She should be celebrated for her courage – not imprisoned for it.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) December 29, 2020
Peter Stano, the EU foreign policy spokesman, said that Zhang had reportedly been “subject to torture and ill-treatment during her detention and her health condition has seriously deteriorated”.
China has no free press, and the government is known for punishing whistleblowers or activists who question its response to the pandemic. An analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom organisation, identified China as the No 1 jailer of journalists globally in 2020, the South China Morning Post reported.
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