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China jails journalist over COVID reporting

December 28, 2020

Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan has received a prison sentence for her reporting from Wuhan during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, according to her lawyer.

China Zhang Zhan
Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan began a hunger strike in JuneImage: Jane Wang

China has sentenced citizen journalist Zhang Zhan to four years in prison after a brief hearing in Shanghai, her lawyer told reporters on Monday. Zhang, 37, covered the coronavirus outbreak from its initial epicenter in Wuhan in February.

Her widely shared video livestreams and essays detailed overcrowded crematoriums and hospitals as Chinese authorities struggled to contain the virus.

Zhang, a former lawyer based in Shanghai, was convicted of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," a common charge used against government critics in China.

"Zhang Zhan looked devastated when the sentence was announced," her lawyer Ren Quanniu told reporters outside the Shanghai Pudong New District People's Court.

UN 'concerned'

The United Nations Human Rights office tweeted it was "deeply concerned" by the sentence.

"We raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020 as an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to COVID-19 and continue to call for her release," the office added.

Reframing the pandemic

Zhang is the first journalist put on trial for her coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. However, three other citizen journalists who reported from Wuhan — Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua — have all been missing since February. Eight whistleblowers have already been punished for criticizing the government's response to the pandemic.

Zhang was critical of the Chinese government's initial handling of the outbreak in Wuhan, writing that authorities "didn't give people enough information, then simply locked down the city."

China has come under fire for its secretive approach to combating COVID-19. Beijing has of late sought to present its handling of the pandemic as an "extraordinary" success. After the virus first emerged in Wuhan late last year and the city of 11 million went into lockdown in February, China's society and economy are rebounding while much of the rest of the world struggles through painful winter surges in infections.

Zhang's trial comes weeks before a team of experts from the World Health Organization is due to arrive in Wuhan to investigate the origins of the coronavirus outbreak.

Worries over Zhang's health

Germany's commissioner for human rights, Bärbel Kofler, appealed to China to "respect the human rights of its citizens and the relevant obligations under international law," adding that reports about Zhang's deteriorating health were "deeply worrying."

Concerns have been growing over Zhang's health after she began a hunger strike in June.

"She said when I visited her [last week]: 'If they give me a heavy sentence then I will refuse food until the very end.' ... She thinks she will die in prison," her lawyer Ren Quanniu said before the trial. "It's an extreme method of protesting against this society and this environment."

Another lawyer, Zhang Keke, who visited her on Christmas Day, wrote in a note circulated on social media that she was "restrained 24 hours a day" and her health was in decline: "She feels psychologically tormented, like every day is a torment."

dr/rt (AFP, dpa)