Zhang, 38, was sentenced to four years in prison on December 28, 2020, after being found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a vaguely defined charge often levelled by the authorities against thosecritical of the Chinese Communist Party.
Today, a total of 43 non-governmental organisations dedicated to defending freedom of the press, including the IFJ, today issued a joint letter addressed to China’s leader Xi Jinping calling for Zhang’s release, after she was reported to have suffered significant weight loss, stomach ulcers and reflux esophagitis.
Zhang was one of the first journalists to travel to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the first Covid-19 cases were detected, to report on the early stages of the virus outbreak. In February 2020, she began uploading short video clips and publishing on social media to document the situation in Wuhan under strict lockdown but was targeted by authorities intent on controlling the narrative surrounding the pandemic. She was arrested in May 2020, accused of spreading false information through online platforms. The indictment document also said Zhang had speculated on the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan while giving interviews to foreign news organisations. Zhang pleaded not guilty at her trial.
Shortly after her detention, Zhang went on hunger strike to protest the arbitrary charges against her. Her health has since declined due to malnutrition. Zhang’s family reportedly visited her in prison in August after they were informed of her ill health and they have expressed worry about her condition.
The joint letter said: “Zhang Zhan has done remarkable work in informing the public about the health crisis, in accordance with the principle of press freedom enshrined in Article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. On the grounds of basic human dignity, we appeal to you, Mr. Chairman, to grant Zhang Zhan the opportunity to meet her parents again by exercising the power granted to you by Article 80 of the Chinese Constitution and ensuring that she is released before it is too late.”
The IFJ said, “We express grave concern over the treatment of Zhang Zhan and call on the Chinese government to immediately release her, so that she may receive proper medical treatment and be reunited with her family. The authorities should also exonerate Zhang from the arbitrary charge and ensure that China is respecting the right of journalists to report according to Chinese law and international standards on an issue of crucial global importance.”