A Chinese citizen journalist detained in Wuhan after “reporting the truth” about the coronavirus outbreak was imprisoned for four years.
For her criticism of the Wuhan government’s handling of the crisis at the height of the outbreak, Zhang Zhan, 37, was found guilty of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble.’
Among a handful of citizens whose first-hand reports from crowded hospitals and deserted streets painted a more grim image of the pandemic epicenter than the official narrative was Ms. Zhang – the first citizen journalist known to have been prosecuted.
Her lawyer Ren Quanniu said they would possibly appeal her four-year sentence handed down at a court in Pudong, Shanghai.
He said before the tribunal, which ended at 12.30 pm local time, ‘Ms. Zhang claims she is being punished for practicing her freedom of speech.’
Criticism of China’s early handling of the crisis has been suppressed, and whistle-blowers have been cautioned against speaking out, such as doctors. State media have credited President Xi Jinping’s leadership with progress in reining in the virus.
A human rights group based in New York told MailOnline earlier that Ms. Zhang was being prosecuted for doing just what the world badly needed: reporting on Wuhan’s coronavirus.
Home to some 11 million people, last December, when coronavirus first broke out there before spreading across the globe, the Chinese provincial capital caught international attention, with at least 1.7 million deaths reported so far.
Police imposed strict security outside the court in Shanghai, where the trial began seven months after the arrest of Ms. Zhang, while some supporters were undeterred.
Due to the outbreak, foreign journalists were refused entry to the tribunal, court security officials said.
On February 1, Ms. Zhang, a former lawyer, arrived in Wuhan from her home in Shanghai. Her short video clips posted to YouTube contain interviews with locals, remarks, and videos of a crematorium, train stations, hospitals, and the Virology Institute of Wuhan.
Detained in mid-May, in late June she went on a hunger strike, court papers revealed.
The court was told by her attorneys that the police strapped her hands and force-fed her with a tube. She had headaches, giddiness, stomach ache, low blood pressure, and throat infection in December.
According to a post on Weiquan Net, a Chinese website that publishes updates about activists, another of Ms. Zhang’s lawyers, Zhang Keke, described his client’s bleak condition after visiting her in a detention center in Shanghai earlier this month.
Her restraint belts had made it hard for her to sleep at night, and she needed toilet assistance because of it, read the post.
Ms. Zhang was ‘absolutely drained’ and ‘felt tormented every day,’ and during the meeting with her lawyer, she could not stop crying, the article said.
While her lawyer had pleaded with her to stop on behalf of her family and friends, she allegedly refused to stop her hunger strike. She also was reported to refute the official allegations that she had fabricated false information and maintained that all her reports came from first-hand interviews and real-location visits in Wuhan.
According to Weiquan Net, on September 15, the People’s Procuratorate of Pudong New District of Shanghai released Ms. Zhang’s persecution records.
One of the official files accused Ms. Zhang of ‘maliciously hyping the novel coronavirus pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan’ through the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat, as well as Twitter and YouTube.
The prosecutor alleged that through text and videos, Ms. Zhang had spread ‘a significant amount of false information’ and approved interviews with foreign media outlets.
The court’s demands to release Zhang on bail before the trial and the live stream trial were rejected, her attorney said.
Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi, and Li Zehua were all citizens-journalists who had vanished without explanation.
Though there was no news about Fang, in April, Li re-emerged in a YouTube video to say that he had been forcefully quarantined.
A friend has said that Chen, while released, is under surveillance and has not spoken publicly.