Chinese Citizen Journalist Gets Four Years in Prison for Pandemic Reporting from Wuhan

Police attempt to stop journalists from recording footage outside the Shanghai Pudong New District People's Court, where Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan - who reported on Wuhan's Covid-19 outbreak and placed under detention since May - is set for trial in Shanghai on December 28, 2020. (Photo by Leo RAMIREZ …
LEO RAMIREZ/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years in prison Monday for the “crime” of reporting on the emerging pandemic in Wuhan in defiance of government censorship orders.

Zhang, 37, appeared in court in a wheelchair due to her declining health after months of harsh imprisonment and a hunger strike she recently launched to protest her treatment.

Zhang, a former lawyer, was arrested in Shanghai in May for reporting critical of how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) handled the coronavirus outbreak. She filed numerous reports from within the city of Wuhan at a time when the CCP was desperate to control how outsiders viewed Ground Zero of the epidemic. She was formally charged with the all-purpose “crime” China uses against political dissidents: “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

“The government isolates individuals from the outside world in the name of treatment. In the name of maintaining stability, the number of infections and deaths is covered up. The media is kept under control in the name of ‘positive energy.’ [The authorities] are coercively and violently ordering and depriving people of their basic human and property rights,” she wrote in a particularly trenchant February report.

Zhan disappeared into the murky depths of China’s politicized prison system until early December when her lawyer Zhang Keke gave an interview in which he said she was subjected to “constant torment” by her captors, including excessively brutal restraints and forced feeding when she attempted a hunger strike.

“In addition to headache, dizziness and stomach pain, there was also pain in her mouth and throat. She said this may be inflammation due to the insertion of a gastric tube,” Zhang Keke said.

CBS News noted several other dissident lawyers and citizen journalists were arrested around the same time as Zhang Zhan. Her lawyer told CBS on December 11 that she might have been arrested because “she went to a police station looking for the missing Wuhan citizen Fang Bin, who filmed the bodies of coronavirus patients in hospital being transported.”

The Pudong New Area People’s Court in Shanghai sentenced Zhang to four years in prison Monday, apparently imposing a gag order that prevented her lawyer from discussing details of the hearing. 

Another lawyer working on her defense, Ren Quanniu, said she “looked devastated when the sentence was announced” and her mother sobbed when the verdict was read.

“Restrained 24 hours a day, she needs assistance going to the bathroom. She feels psychologically exhausted, like every day is a torment,” Zhang Keke said on social media.

“[During the trial] the prosecutor only read out the list of evidence, without showing most of it, including the core evidence. Zhang Zhan said citizens’ speech should not be censored. But apart from that, she basically did not speak,” he said.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported police blocked supporters of Zhang Zhan from observing the trial and temporarily arrested them if they became too insistent. Police told one intrepid citizen observer that “epidemic prevention and control measures” required the hearing to be held behind closed doors.

“Zhang Zhan is the one paying the biggest price for Wuhan, a price of blood and tears, of health and life. Zhang Zhan is unbelievably determined for the truth and faith. As a Wuhan native, I must support her,” the frustrated Zhang supporter said.

“This regime stands on two pillars: lies and power. It covers up the truth about the pandemic with lies so it can carry on its rule,” declared another supporter, activist Wu Yangwei.

Wu, like many other commentators within and outside China, said the regime was treating Zhang harshly to “intimidate and shut up the ordinary people.”


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