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China jails citizen journalist for four years over Wuhan virus reports

BEIJING, China: A Chinese journalist who covered Wuhan’s coronavirus outbreak has been jailed for four years.

Zhang Zhan was found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a frequent charge against activists.

The 37-year-old former lawyer was detained in May and has been on hunger strike for several months. Her lawyers say she is in poor health.

Zhang is one of several citizen journalists who have run into trouble for reporting on Wuhan.

There is no free media in China and authorities are known to clamp down on activists or whistleblowers seen as undermining the government’s response to the outbreak.

“Zhang Zhan looked devastated when the sentence was announced,” Ren Quanniu, who was one of her defence lawyers, said.

Ren added that Zhang’s mother, who was in court, sobbed loudly as the verdict was readout.

Zhang had travelled to Wuhan in February to independently report on the outbreak there. Her live-streamed reports and essays were widely shared on social media, bringing her to the attention of the Chinese authorities.

The Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said her reports also included coverage of the detention of other independent journalists and the harassment of families of victims who were seeking accountability.

In a video interview with an independent filmmaker before her arrest,  Zhang said she decided to visit Wuhan after reading an online post by a resident about life in the city during the outbreak.

Once there, she began documenting what she saw on the streets and hospitals in live streams, despite threats by authorities.

“Maybe I have a rebellious soul… I’m just documenting the truth. Why can’t I show the truth?” she said in a clip of the interview obtained by the BBC.

“I won’t stop what I’m doing because this country can’t go backwards.”

Zhang went missing on May 14 according to the CHRD. One day later, it was revealed she had been detained by police in Shanghai, more than 640 kilometres (400 miles) away.

She was formally charged in early November. The indictment sheet alleges she sent “false information through text, video and other media through [platforms like] WeChat, Twitter and YouTube”.

She is also accused of accepting interviews with foreign media outlets and “maliciously spreading” information about the virus in Wuhan. A sentence of four to five years was recommended.

In protest against her arrest, Zhang has gone on a hunger strike and is said to be in very poor health.

One of her lawyers said in a statement that when he visited her in early December she had told him she was being force-fed via a feeding tube. He also said she was suffering from headaches, dizziness and stomach pain.

“Restrained 24 hours a day, she needs assistance going to the bathroom, and she tosses and turns in her sleep,” the lawyer Zhang Keke said.

“She feels psychologically exhausted, like every day is a torment.”

The lawyer had applied for a postponement of the trial given the state of Ms Zhang’s health.

Zhang had previously been detained in 2019 for voicing support for activists in Hong Kong.

Leo Lan, a research and advocacy consultant at the rights group Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders said Ms Zhang’s latest sentencing was “alarming”.

“[Her] sentence is so heavy. The Chinese government is very determined to silence her and intimidate other citizens who tried to expose what happened in Wuhan,” he told the BBC.

“I’m concerned about the fate of other detained citizens who also reported news about the pandemic.”

Several other citizen journalists who reported from Wuhan – Li Zehua, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin – went missing earlier this year.

Li eventually resurfaced, saying he was forcibly quarantined, while Chen is reported to be staying with family but under government supervision. The whereabouts of Fang Bin are still unknown.