COVID-19: Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan jailed for four years over Wuhan reporting

·3-min read

A Chinese citizen journalist who reported on the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan has been jailed for four years.

A Chinese court handed the term to Zhang Zhan, 37, on grounds of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble", her lawyer said.

Zhan, the first person known to have been tried on those charges, was among a handful of people in Wuhan whose first-hand accounts of the coronavirus pandemic have landed them in trouble.

China has been accused of covering up the initial outbreak and delaying the release of crucial information, allowing the virus to spread.

China's ruling Communist Party tightly controls the media and seeks to block dissemination of information it has not approved for release. In the early days of the outbreak, authorities reprimanded several Wuhan doctors for "rumour-mongering" after they alerted friends on social media.

Zhan had uploaded YouTube videos of interviews with residents, commentary and footage of a crematorium, train stations, crowded hospitals, empty streets and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Her mother Shao Wenxia said at the trial on Monday that she does not understand the sentence.

"All she did was say a few true words, and for that she got four years," she said, while standing with her husband.

State media have credited the country's success in reining in the virus to the leadership of President Xi Jinping.

In Shanghai, police enforced tight security outside the court where the trial opened seven months after Zhang's detention, but supporters were undeterred.

A man in a wheelchair, who said he came from the central province of Henan to support Zhan as a fellow Christian, wrote her name on a poster before police escorted him away.

Foreign journalists were denied entry to the Pudong court "due to the epidemic", court security officials said.

Zhan's lawyer Ren Quanniu said his team will "probably appeal".

"Ms Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech," he said before the trial.

A former lawyer, Zhan arrived in Wuhan in February from her home in Shanghai and was detained mod-May.

She went on a hunger strike in late June, court documents show.

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Her lawyers told the court that police strapped her hands and force-fed her with a tube.

By December, she was suffering headaches, giddiness, stomach ache, low blood pressure and a throat infection.

Requests to the court to release Zhan on bail before the trial and to livestream the trial were ignored, Mr Quanniu said.

Other citizen-journalists who disappeared without explanation included Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua.

While there has been no news of Fang, Li re-emerged in a YouTube video in April to say he was forcibly quarantined, while Chen, although released, is under surveillance and has not spoken publicly, a friend said.

A post on the official UK Embassy in Beijing's twitter page wrote: "The case of Zhang Zhan... raises serious concerns about media freedom in China. A British diplomat tried to attend her trial, but was not allowed access".

"Ms Zhang is one of at least 47 journalists currently in detention in China. The whereabouts of other citizen journalists - including Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin - is unknown. We urge China to release all those detained for their reporting."