Chinese citizen journalist jailed for four years over coronavirus reportage
A 37-year-old citizen journalist was on Monday sentenced to four years in prison by a Chinese court over her coronavirus outbreak reporting, more than a year after the virus emerged in Wuhan. Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, was the first known person to be put on trial in China for revealing the side of the outbreak which the ruling Chinese Communist Party wanted hidden.
Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese state acted in a brutish manner against those who spoke about the health crisis. Dr. Li Wenliang, who tried warning his friends about the infection, was forced to admit he spread rumors; Professor Xu Zhangrun, who wrote a scathing piece against Xi's handling of the virus, was put under house arrest; and citizen journalist Chen Qiushi went missing for reporting Wuhan's situation.
If one considers the treatment meted out to dissenters in China, the punishment given to Zhang doesn't come as a shock. Arrested for "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," Zhang was in November formally indicted for spreading misinformation about the outbreak. The prosecution statement maintained she dispersed misleading facts through "text, video and other media through the Internet media such as WeChat, Twitter, and YouTube."
Contrary to what the Chinese state would have the rest of the world believe, Zhang didn't mislead on the outbreak but furnished a truthful account. In February 2020, she had traveled from Shanghai to Wuhan, eventually reporting how the virus crippled healthcare infrastructure there. She was extremely critical of the government's actions against coronavirus whistleblowers and also raised questions on the lockdown.
"The government's way of managing this city (Wuhan) has just been intimidation and threats. This is truly the tragedy of this country," she had said in a video, that turned out to be her last dispatch. She was detained in May, said reports.
To protest against her detention, Zhang started a hunger strike. The Chinese authorities hit back at her with more force. Earlier this month, Zhang's lawyer, Zhang Keke, said that a feeding tube was inserted into his client. Her hands were also tied up to stop her from removing the tube. Keke said she was in "constant torment" and needed help to go to the washroom.
During the hearing today, Zhang appeared in a wheelchair, the lawyer informed, adding that her mother broke down after the verdict. While she remained quiet for the large part of the trial, Zhang blurted once that "people's speech shouldn't be censored," reports NYT. A heavy police force kept reporters away from the Shanghai Pudong courthouse, where the trial commenced, local media reported.
"She said when I visited her (last week): 'If they give me a heavy sentence then I will refuse food until the very end.' She thinks she will die in prison," another of Zhang's lawyer Ren Quanniu had said before the trial.
The sentencing comes just weeks before a team of the World Health Organization is expected to arrive in China to probe the origins of the virus. While Beijing has heaped praises on itself for controlling the outbreak, there is enough evidence to suggest its lax approach allowed the virus to travel. So far, the deadly virus has claimed 17,72,853 lives and infected 5,73,30,624 globally.