Chinese citizen journalist jailed for 4 years for Wuhan reports

Zhang Zhan was critical of the govt’s belated response to the outbreak.

A court in China on Monday jailed a citizen journalist for four years for her non-sanctioned reporting from Wuhan as the COVID-19 outbreak unfolded earlier this year, accusing her of “provoking trouble”.

Zhang Zhan, 37, is a former lawyer who, like several other Chinese citizen journalists, travelled to Wuhan in late January and early February, motivated to tell the story of what was unfolding in the city, which had been locked down on January 23. At the time, information coming out of Wuhan was sparse, with authorities only on January 20 confirming the new virus, circulating in the city since early December, could spread between people.

Ms. Zhang’s live video reports showed a city in full lockdown and the situation in hospitals, and she was often critical of the government’s belated response during the early stages of the outbreak.

Also read: ‘Wuhan Diary’ offers eyewitness account of life in China during COVID-19 outbreak

Her case was heard on Monday by a Shanghai court after seven months spent in detention, in a country where the courts are controlled by the ruling Communist Party.

The sentence accused her of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, and said she had spread “fake information” to foreign media outlets such as the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia.

Ms. Zhang’s lawyers had expressed concerns over her health, as she has been on a hunger strike while in detention since this summer. She had been force-fed through feeding tubes and had her hands had been restrained so she could not stop the feeding, lawyers said.

Ms. Zhang, who had travelled from Shanghai to Wuhan in early February, wasn’t the only citizen journalist who ventured to the site of the coronavirus outbreak.

The accounts of other “citizen journalists” such as Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua provided a stark contrast to State media reports describing a situation that had been completely under control.

Mr. Chen’s video reports from hospitals reported at the time of shortages of testing kits and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), when Wuhan’s hospitals were being flooded. City hospitals had since late December reported a surge in pneumonia patients, but local authorities until mid-January officially reported no major uptick in cases and did not confirm that human-to-human transmission was possible.

Wuhan was locked down on January 23, and stringent measures across China coupled with mass testing and tracing subsequently allowed authorities to bring the virus under control by the summer, with much of China now returning to normalcy barring occasional local clusters that have been quickly controlled.

That was not, however, the case in February, when Mr. Chen was detained. He has not been charged, but has since stopped reporting. In one of his last dispatches, he said, “I’m afraid. In front me of is the virus, and behind me is the legal and administrative power of China.”

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