When a cluster of ‘unknown viral pneumonia’ cases was discovered in Wuhan, citizen journalist, Zhang Zhan, was among the first to report it. Now Zhan has been sentenced to four years imprisonment for doing so.
Her actions heralded the earliest indication of the COVID-19 outbreak in China, which has now spread to over 218 countries and killed nearly 1.8 million people globally.
Zhan’s sentence, which opens fresh concerns about press freedom, has been viewed as an attempt by Chinese authorities to repress criticism of the Chinese government’s response to the outbreak.
In a brief hearing in Shanghai’s Pudong New District People’s Court, the former lawyer was, on Monday, charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after her live reports and articles were spread on social media in February.
Reuters reports that “her short video clips uploaded to YouTube consist of interviews with residents, commentary and footage of a crematorium, train stations, hospitals and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
Following her detention seven months ago, the journalist embarked on a hunger strike, in protest of her arrest and indictment, and has been hand-tied and force fed with a feeding tube before appearing in court for her trial looking debilitated in a wheelchair. After the verdict was announced, Zhang’s mother sobbed loudly in court.
Outside the Shanghai Pudong court, heavy security presence was seen, as Police tried to block journalists from advancing, then eventually sealing off most of the road opposite where Zhang was on trial – Laurie Chen, a China and Mongolia correspondent wrote on Twitter.
Away from the grim image painted by Zhan’s reports, China’s communist authorities have crafted an official narrative, a polar opposite from the independent reports, and are clamping down on citizens or groups that stray from commending President Xi Jinping and the ruling party for their leadership.
China has ‘bounced back’ to business and reopened its economy, after self-evaluating its control of the virus and rebound of its economy as an “extraordinary” success. Outside of China, the virus has stifled businesses, halted social interactions, and crippled economies.
So far, there has been no independent inquiry into the origins of the virus in China or accountability for the damages brought about by its spread due to reckless abandon of authorities, and politicking around a public health crisis with a critical need for information flows.
The British embassy in Beijing has urged China to release all those in detention for their reporting and cites that “Zhang Zhan’s case raises serious concerns about media freedom in China.”
“We raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020 as an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to #COVID19 & continue to call for her release,” Michelle Bachelet from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights wrote in a tweet.
At the moment, China has punished eight virus whistleblowers, with three other citizen journalists, Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, and Li Zehua in detention and awaiting trial for reporting from Wuhan about the virus.