Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was on Monday sentenced to four years in prison, after being convicted of “provoking quarrels and causing unrest” – an accusation that the country’s authoritarian government often denounces against activists.
Zhang, 37, is among several citizen journalists facing the Chinese regime’s backlash for covering the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
Who is Zhang Zhan
Zhang, a former lawyer from Shanghai, is one of many journalists and professionals who traveled to Wuhan in February this year, when the coronavirus epidemic in China was at its peak. According to a New York Times report, this was the period when the Chinese government was busy fighting the virus, and therefore the country’s strict censorship regime had become relatively more relaxed.
In an interview recorded before her arrest, Zhang said she traveled to Wuhan after encountering an online message from a local resident describing living conditions in the city during the pandemic.
While in Wuhan, Zhang reported on various parts of the city, its crowded hospitals, and also documented the arrests of journalists and the harassment inflicted on the families of those who demand accountability, according to a BBC report.
Zhang offered a scathing criticism of the Chinese government while reporting on the city, while questioning its propaganda. She recorded live videos and wrote articles despite threats from government officials, and her work gained popularity on social media.
Zhang was also arrested in 2019 for supporting activists in Hong Kong.
A New York Times report quoted Zhang in the last video before his arrest: “The way the government runs this city is simply intimidation and threats. This is truly the tragedy of this country. “
Then, on May 14, Zhang disappeared and it was learned a day later that she had been arrested by authorities faraway in Shanghai, according to the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a human rights group.
In November, Zhang was formally charged and the indictment charged her with sending “false information by text, video and other media via WeChat, Twitter and YouTube.” WeChat is a popular messaging app in China, and many use Twitter and YouTube through Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), as both of these apps are officially blocked there.
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 to 5 years and the trial was held behind closed doors.
According to his lawyers, Zhang has been on a hunger strike for several months to protest his arrest and is in poor health. One of her lawyers said she was force-fed using a feeding tube and her hands were restrained so she could not remove the tube.
Media freedom during the pandemic
Human rights activists have accused China of punishing Zhang with a heavy four-year sentence.
Other citizen journalists who reported from Wuhan who were also reported missing earlier this year include Li Zehua, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin, according to the BBC. Of the three, Li reappeared and said he had been forcibly quarantined. Chen is believed to be living with his family under government supervision, and it is still not known where Fang is located, according to the report.
On Tuesday, a day after Zhang’s conviction, the US and the EU denounced the Chinese justice system. In a statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “The United States strongly condemns the mock prosecution and conviction by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of citizen journalist Zhang Zhan on December 28. We call on the government of the PRC to immediately release her unconditionally. “
In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s lies, the uncensored reports of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan from Wuhan have given the world a much needed window into the COVID-19 epidemic. She should be celebrated for her courage – not jailed for it.
– Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) December 29, 2020
Peter Stano, the EU’s foreign policy spokesperson, said Zhang was “allegedly subjected to torture and ill-treatment while in detention and his state of health had seriously deteriorated”.
China does not have a free press, and the government has been known to punish whistleblowers or activists who question its response to the pandemic. Analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom organization, identified China as the world’s top jailer of journalists in 2020, the South China Morning Post reported.