National Post (National Edition)
China jails citizen who reported on virus
United Nations is calling for woman's release
TAIPEI • A court in China on Monday jailed a citizen journalist for four years over her reports from Wuhan, making her the first reporter imprisoned for covering the coronavirus pandemic.
Zhang Zhan, 37, who filed a series of uncensored reports in the early stages of the outbreak, appeared in court in Shanghai in a wheelchair because of her poor health.
She was detained in May and began a hunger strike in late June. Since then, she has been subjected to regular force-feeding through a nasal tube, with her arms pinned to her sides to stop her pulling out the tube, her lawyers say.
Zhang was found guilty of picking quarrels and provoking trouble after a brief hearing, according to one of her defence team, Ren Quanniu.
“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,” Ren told the AFP news agency.
“It's an extreme method of protesting against this society and this environment.”
The United Nations human rights office called for Zhang's release in a tweet.
“We raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020 as an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to COVID-19, and continue to call for her release,” the UN said.
Zhang, a former lawyer, travelled from Shanghai to Wuhan in early February to see for herself what was going on at the epicentre of the coronavirus.
She chronicled the chaotic early stages and residents' experiences by posting reports and livestreaming on WeChat, Facebook and Twitter, including evidence of crematoriums operating at midnight as the death toll rose.
Zhang also reported on the authorities' harassment of victims' family members as well as the detentions of other citizen journalists, before disappearing in midMay.
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.
This month, authorities have detained more activists and journalists “without providing any credible information to suggest that these individuals have committed legally recognizable offences,” Human Rights Watch said.