China: Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan jailed for four years over reporting on pandemic

Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who covered the coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan earlier this year, was convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” on December 28 and sentenced to four years in prison. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has strongly condemned Beijing’s attempt to quash critical voices while calling on Chinese authorities to overturn the verdict and release Zhang immediately.

Police stand at the entrance of the Shanghai Pudong New District People's Court, where Zhang Zhan is set for trial, in Shanghai on December 28, 2020. Credit: Leo Ramirez/AFP.

Zhang, 37, was found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a broadly defined charge often levelled by the authorities against those who are critical of the Chinese Communist Party, the BBC and other news outlets reported

Tight security was in place outside the court on December 28 and journalists were kept away by law enforcement personnel, reported AFP. Her lawyer, Zhang Keke, said Zhang was in poor health and attended the trial in a wheelchair, according to South Morning China Post.

The former lawyer went to Wuhan, the city where the first COVID-19 cases were reported in China, in February to report on the outbreak. She was arrested in May and was later transferred to detention in Shanghai. Zhang went on a hunger strike and was force-fed through a tube, the Guardian said.

When in Wuhan, Zhang used streaming videos and social media posts to try to break stories that were kept from the public by government officials. She interviewed local people and filmed a hospital crowded with patients during the city’s lockdown.

Zhang was indicted in November, and the authorities accused her of spreading false information through online platforms.. The indictment document also noted that Zhang had speculated on the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan while giving interviews to  foreign news organisations.

This is not the first time Zhang has been punished for crossing Beijing’s red line. In 2019, she was detained for two months after she shared and wrote articles related to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protest movement, reports said.

Beijing has ramped up its efforts to clamp down on citizen journalists for their coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan during its early stages. Chen Qiushi, Li Zehua, and Fang Bin have all either been detained or placed under state supervision. Zhang is reportedly the first among them to have been handed jail time.

The IFJ said: “The IFJstrongly condemns Beijing’s attempt to quash critical voices and calls on the Chinese authorities to overturn the verdict and release Zhang Zhanimmediately.

The IFJ also calls on Beijing to drop the charges against Jimmy Lai and cease using the security law to suppress free speech”.

For further information contact IFJ Asia - Pacific on ifj@ifj-asia.org

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 140 countries

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