Citizen Journalist Zhang Zhan Faces Five Years In Prison

Lawyer-turned-citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who reported on Wuhan’s coronavirus outbreak, has been indicted on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” According to China Human Rights Defenders, Chinese authorities are seeking a five-year sentence for Zhang. Zhang, the fourth citizen journalist to be arrested for coverage of the coronavirus epidemic, was detained in May and has been held in a Shanghai detention facility since then. The charges against Zhang come days after Radio Free Asia reported that Chinese authorities had imposed an “information blackout” and pressured her defense attorney off of the case. Helen Davidson reported for The Guardian on the charges against Zhang:

She was accused of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”, an accusation frequently used against critics and activists inside China, after reporting on social media and streaming accounts.

The indictment sheet, released on Monday, said Zhang had sent “false information through text, video and other media through the Internet media such as WeChat, Twitter and YouTube”, according to the prosecution document.

“She also accepted interviews from overseas media Free Radio Asia and Epoch Times and maliciously speculated on Wuhan’s Covid-19 epidemic” it said. A sentence of four to five years was recommended.

The NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said Zhang’s reports included “the detentions of other independent reporters and harassment of families of victims seeking accountability from the epicentre via her WeChat, Twitter and YouTube accounts”. [Source]

Zhang travelled to Wuhan in early February and immediately began to record life under lockdown. She pursued information about Li Wenliang’s death, fellow-citizen journalist Fang Bin’s disappearance, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In a video uploaded on May 12, the day before her arrest, a policeman confronted her, yelling, “Are you a reporter? I want to ask! …You must take responsibility for all the photographs you took today!” In an article published two weeks later, The Financial Times’ Don Weinland and Christian Shepherd documented the divergence between Zhang Zhan’s accounts of the Wuhan outbreak and the government’s story:

Ms Zhang’s reporting contrasted sharply with the government line on the outbreak. Many of her news reports, which were often posted on YouTube and Twitter, focused on the number of coronavirus cases in Wuhan. She routinely cast doubt on the official numbers, stating that, based on her research, the figure should be higher.

When the FT spoke to Ms Zhang in mid-April, she was gathering information on the economic conditions in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital. She said that many small businesses were failing and unemployment appeared to be rising quicker than local governments had let on. [Source]

Zhang was previously detained for “picking quarrels” in 2018 and in 2019, the second time for her support for the Hong Kong protester movement. During her two-month detention in 2019, police compelled Zhang to take a psychiatric assessment. Chinese authorities so often confine activists and journalists to mental institutions that the phrase “to be mentally-illed” (bèi shénjīngbìng 被神经病 ) has entered Chinese parlance.

This round of detention’s physical toll on Zhang has her family worried. In September Radio Free Asia reported that Zhang was hunger striking. An October 2 report from William Yang of DW News provided further details about her condition and attitude:

A source told DW that Zhang’s lawyer finally met her on September 28. She reportedly lost a lot of weight but still maintains a normal mental state. Even though Zhang’s family wanted her to stop the hunger strike, Zhang said she wouldn’t give up so easily.

“She still refuses to eat and the detention center has had to arrange two to three people to force-feed her porridge or other watery food,” the source said. Zhang still insists that she is innocent and she plans to remain silent when her trial begins. However, her legal team reportedly thinks it is a bad strategy to use silence as a form of protest.

“They are worried that she won’t have the strength to sit through a trial, so her lawyers want to convince her to end the hunger strike,” the source told DW. “However, Zhang has a very strong will so whether she will follow her lawyers’ suggestion or not remains unclear.” [Source]

Zhang Zhan was part of the flowering of Chinese journalism that occurred in the early days of the Wuhan outbreak. The explosion of journalism was met with swift reprisals from Chinese authorities, who then tried to rearrange the narratives of Wuhan’s outbreak to cast the government in a positive light. This reprisal extended even to those who had not reported themselves. Chen Mei and Cai Wei, internet activists based in Beijing who preserved censored coverage of the Wuhan outbreak on Github, were arrested in April and also charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a staple “pocket crime” of the Xi era. The Committee To Protect Journalists’ Asia Program Coordinator, Steven Butler, said, “China professes pride in its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but appears deathly afraid of allowing independent journalists like Zhang Zhan to freely tell the story of what is happening.”

Some of the cohort of disappeared citizen journalists who reported from Wuhan have resurfaced, yet others remain missing. Li Zehua, who disappeared from the public eye in late February after live-streaming an explanation of his decision to report from Wuhan to security forces waiting to arrest him outside his apartment, reappeared in late April. Citizen journalist Chen Qiushi also went missing in late February, but according to his friend, MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong, Chen is in a “safe place,” as of September. Fang Bin, who disappeared in mid-February after documenting bodies stacked in a van outside of a Wuhan hospital, remains missing to this day.


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