Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was on Monday sentenced to four years in prison, after he was found guilty of “raising quarrels and causing problems” – an accusation that the country’s authoritarian government often raises against activists.
Zhang, 37, is one of several journalists facing adverse reactions from the Chinese regime to cover the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
Who is Zhang Zhan
Zhang, a former Shanghai lawyer, is one of many journalists and professionals who traveled to Wuhan in February this year, when the Chinese coronavirus outbreak was at its height. According to a New York Times report, this was the time when the Chinese government was fighting the virus and thus the country’s strict censorship regime had become relatively more relaxed.
During a pre-arrest interview, Zhang said he traveled to Wuhan after coming across an online post by a local resident describing city living conditions during the pandemic.
While in Wuhan, Zhang reported from different parts of the city, from its crowded hospitals, and also documented the journalists’ arrests and harassment of the families of those responsible, according to a BBC report.
Zhang offered harsh criticism of the Chinese government while reporting from the city, questioning its propaganda as well. She recorded live videos and wrote articles despite receiving threats from officials, and her work gained significant traction on social media.
Zhang was also arrested in 2019 for speaking out in support of Hong Kong activists.
A New York Times report quoted Zhang as saying in the last video before his arrest: “The government’s way of running this city has been nothing but 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 in faraway Shanghai, according to China’s Human Rights Defenders Network.
In November, Zhang was officially charged, and the indictment accused her of sending “false information through text, videos and other media via WeChat, Twitter and YouTube.” WeChat is a popular messaging application in China, and many use Twitter and YouTube through virtual private networks (VPNs) because both applications 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 his lawyers, Zhang has been on hunger strike for several months to protest his arrest and is in poor health. One of her lawyers said she was forcibly fed with a supply tube, and her hands were restrained so that she could not pull the tube out.
Media freedoms during the pandemic
Human rights activists have accused China of punishing Zhang with a four-year sentence.
According to the BBC, other citizen journalists who reported from Wuhan and disappeared earlier this year include Li Zehua, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin. Among the three, Li reappeared and said he was forcibly quarantined. Chen is believed to be living with her family under government surveillance, and the whereabouts of Fang are still unknown.
On Tuesday, a day after Zhang was convicted, both the US and the EU denounced China’s judiciary. In a statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The United States strongly condemns the prosecution and conviction of journalist Zhang Zhan of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on December 28. We call on the PRC government to release it immediately and unconditionally. “
Faced with the lies of the Chinese Communist Party, the uncensored reports of Chinese journalist Zhang Zhan in Wuhan provided the world with a much-needed window into the COVID-19 outbreak. She should be celebrated for her courage – not closed for that.
– Secretar Pompeo (@SecPompeo) December 29, 2020
Peter Stano, the EU’s foreign policy spokesman, said Zhang had been “tortured and ill-treated during his detention and his health had deteriorated severely”.
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 organization, identified China as the largest prisoner of journalists globally in 2020, the South China Morning Post reported.