An independent journalist who reported on the COVID pandemic during the height of the initial outbreak has been sentenced to four years in prison by a court in Shanghai, according to her lawyer.
Zhang Zhan, 37, is a former lawyer and current independent Chinese journalist who reported from Wuhan in early February on the pandemic and attempts to contain it. At the time of her reporting, authorities in China had begun trying to suppress coverage by the media.
Zhan was found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” according to Zhang Keke, one of her defense lawyers who attended her hearing. This charge is typically used by the Chinese government to target dissidents and human rights activists.
This is what happens in Communist China if you try to tell the truth about the COVID-19 outbreak. You’re jailed for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.https://t.co/8GmOcAl4ov
— Sen. Marsha Blackburn (@MarshaBlackburn) December 28, 2020
For more than three months, Zhang documented life under the authoritarian lockdown in Wuhan, and showed the world the reality of harsh treatment faced by the people, including overflowing hospitals and empty shops. Her observations, along with photos and videos, were shared on social media, including Twitter and YouTube, which are both blocked in China.
She stopped posting in mid-May, and it was later revealed that she had been detained by police and brought back to Shanghai. Amnesty International reported that, at one point during her incarceration, Zhang went on a hunger strike and was shackled and force fed. Her lawyer confirmed this after a visit earlier this month, saying that she had a feeding tube attached to her nose and mouth, and her hands were bound to prevent her from removing the tube.
Zhang’s lawyer also noted that she was in a wheelchair during Monday’s hearing.
In the indictment, prosecutors accused Zhang of “publishing large amounts of fake information” and receiving interviews from overseas media outlets, including Radio Free Asia and the Epoch Times, to “maliciously stir up the Wuhan Covid-19 epidemic situation.”
Her lawyer stated that prosecutors never provided any concrete evidence of the “fake information” during the court proceedings. Zhang, in protest, barely spoke during the hearing and refused to plead guilty.
Zhang, the first citizen journalist known to have been sentenced for reporting on the COVID pandemic, has been in trouble with Chinese authorities before.
According to her indictment, she was twice detained for 10 days in 2019 for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” but the document did not give details of these prior charges.
CNN reported that “Zhang is one of a number of independent reporters who have been detained or disappeared in China since the beginning of the pandemic, as the authorities clamped down on coverage of the virus and propaganda outlets went into overdrive portraying Beijing’s response as effective and timely.”