On 28 December 2020, 37-year-old Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years in prison for reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan earlier this year. The trial, which lasted less than three hours, was described by Zhang’s lawyer, Zhang Keke (not related), as being “hollow.” Speaking to CBS News, the lawyer noted that the prosecutor had not visually presented most of the evidence, including videos and articles Zhang Zhan has uploaded on various social media platforms; failing to elaborate on the lawyer-turned-journalist’s wrongdoing.
“The pronouncement of [the] sentence in court was quite rare and unexpected,” said defence lawyer Zhang Keke, alluding to the Chinese authorities’ history of putting dissidents on trial in “opaque courts” (CBS News) during the holiday season to reduce scrutiny from the West. Locally, Zhang Zhan’s supporters, foreign diplomats, and several journalists who were drawing international attention to Zhang’s case were barred from entering the Shanghai Pudong New District People’s Court, where the hearing took place. According to the Washington Post, at least nine people were reportedly detained. The hearing, disguised as a ‘private’ one, took place mere weeks before an international team of World Health Organization experts, tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus, were expected to arrive in the country.
Zhang had initially travelled from her home in Shanghai to Wuhan in February, at the height of China’s outbreak, documenting the lives of the central city’s residents amid its strict lockdown. After initial suspicions that she had gone missing on 14 May, it was later learnt that Zhang had been arrested and convicted under article 293 of China’s penal code – for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – an ambiguous charge often used against activists and critics of the Chinese government.
She was also accused of disseminating “false information through text, video, and other media through [social media] such as WeChat, Twitter, and YouTube” alongside accepting interviews from media overseas where she “maliciously speculated on Wuhan’s COVID-19 epidemic,” reported The Guardian). “Ordinary people saying something casually [on] WeChat might be summoned and admonished,” described the citizen journalist in one of her reports. Zhang had earlier denied these allegations, clarifying that all her reports on the outbreak response, though critical of the censorship and intimidation tactics, were based on first-hand accounts by local residents.
In protest of said charges, the citizen journalist had gone on a prolonged hunger strike in June. The authorities, however, have been force-feeding Zhang through a tube and restrained her hands to prevent her from pulling the tube out. Ren Quanniu, Zhang’s other defence lawyer fears that she will not last four years in prison, having already lost 20kg (roughly 44 pounds) since the beginning of her detainment in May. In such a weak state, Zhang Zhan barely reacted to the announcement of her sentence and has not indicated if she would appeal, only managing to say that citizens should have the right to free speech.
Chinese Human Rights Defenders’ research and advocacy consultant Leo Lan said, “Zhang Zhan’s heavy sentence will have a deterrent effect of silencing others who witnessed what happened in Wuhan earlier this year.” She was the first of at least five other citizen journalists – Cai Wei, Chen Mei, Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, and Li Zehua – covering the coronavirus outbreak to face trial. But, the arrest continued as December alone saw the detainment of Bloomberg journalist Haze Fan; human rights activist Ou Biaofen and documentary journalist Du Bin, both of whom were similarly arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” reported The Guardian). With at least 274 journalists jailed by 1 December, China is the world’s worst jailer for the second year in a row, according to the independent press freedom advocacy organization, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Fearing for the lives of those critical of the Chinese government as well as further information clampdown (as was the case with the initial downplaying of the coronavirus in Wuhan), Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqiu Wang said, “governments around the world should press Beijing to release wrongfully detained journalists and activists immediately.” News of Zhang’s case has been heard internationally as the United Nations human rights office chimed in, tweeting, “we raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020 as an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to #COVID-19 & continue to call for her release.” Alongside these calls for transparency, there needs to be greater protection of activists, journalists, and citizens’ right to freedom of expression, as well as increased safeguarding of independent media platforms by international organizations.
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