Chinese citizen journalist jailed for four years over Wuhan coronavirus reports
A Chinese court sentenced a citizen journalist to four years in prison on Monday for her uncensored reports from Wuhan during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak. Zhang Zhan, 37, appeared in court in Shanghai in a wheelchair because of her deteriorating health. She began a hunger strike in late June to protest her detention, and has been subjected to force-feeding through a nasal tube, according to her lawyers. Ms Zhang was found guilty of picking quarrels and provoking trouble after a brief hearing, according to one of her defence lawyers, Ren Quanniu. She had faced up to five years on the charge, which authorities regularly use to detain activists and other dissidents. “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,” Mr Ren told the AFP news agency. “It’s an extreme method of protesting against this society and this environment,” he added. Ms Zhang, a former lawyer, travelled 500 miles from Shanghai to Wuhan in early February to see for herself what was going on at the epicentre of the coronavirus. She was a source of uncensored first-hand information amid tightly controlled state media reports on the virus. She chronicled the chaotic early stages and residents’ experiences. She posted reports and livestreamed scenes from the city on WeChat, Facebook and Twitter, including evidence of crematoriums operating at midnight as the death toll rose. She also reported on authorities’ harassment of victims’ family members and detentions of other citizen journalists. She disappeared in mid-May, and was later accused of spreading false information, giving interviews to foreign media, disrupting public order and “maliciously manipulating” the outbreak. In June, she began a hunger strike to protest her detention. Earlier this month, one of her lawyers said that she was forced to wear a belt 24 hours a day that restrains her hands to stop her from pulling feeding tubes out, and needs assistance going to the bathroom. The ruling Communist Party controls the media in China, and seeks to censor information it doesn’t want getting out. In the early stages of the outbreak, authorities punished several Wuhan doctors for “rumour-mongering” after they alerted friends of a mysterious pneumonia circulating in the city. The best known of these, Li Wenliang, later died of Covid-19. Chinese authorities have detained a number of activists and citizen journalists who reported on the outbreak. While some have been released, others remain in detention or their whereabouts unknown. Since the beginning of December, authorities have detained more activists and journalists “without providing any credible information to suggest that these individuals have committed legally recognizable offenses,” Human Rights Watch said on Saturday. It called on authorities to “drop all baseless charges and immediately and unconditionally release those wrongfully held.” Following early missteps and accusations of covering up the initial outbreak, China has since brought Covid-19 largely under control within its borders. Chinese authorities insist that they responded promptly during its critical first weeks, and bought time for the rest of the world to prepare. State media have credited China’s success in reining in the virus to President Xi Jinping’s leadership, and pushed theories that the virus may have been circulating outside China before the outbreak in Wuhan. However, the government has obstructed efforts for any independent investigation into the source of the virus, which has now infected more than 80 million people around the world and killed almost 1.8 million. A team from the World Health Organisation is due to travel to Wuhan next month to investigate.