Citizen Journalist Zhang Zhan Is Jailed for COVID Reporting

Zhang Zhan, lawyer-turned-citizen journalist who documented the lockdown of Wuhan at the start of the COVID-19 epidemic, has been jailed for four years for her reporting. She was the fourth citizen journalist to be arrested and the only one to be formally indicted for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” and has been on hunger strike in prison since shortly after her arrest in June 2020. The Washington Post’s Lily Kuo reported on Zhang’s sentencing:

In a closed-door trial that lasted less than three hours, authorities in Shanghai handed down the sentence to Zhang Zhan, 37, for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a charge often used against dissidents.

Zhang, a former lawyer turned activist, traveled to Wuhan in February, where she filmed from overwhelmed hospitals, neighborhoods and community centers, providing a rare window into the locked-down city. Her critical reports accusing the government of suppressing the voices of regular citizens and failing to inform residents of the reality of the situation contrasted with rosy state media coverage, one of the few sources of information. Zhang was detained in May.

Chinese authorities often hold sensitive trials involving human rights activists during the holiday season when much of the rest of the world is distracted. The proceedings, usually announced with little notice, are almost always held in secret. [Source]

Over the course of this year, the Chinese government has waged a concerted campaign to rewrite the history of its initial handling of the pandemic. It has heavily censored and manipulated media coverage of the outbreak—as documented in CDT’s compilation of leaked media directives from early 2020fiercely resisted any calls for an independent investigation, and arrested several independent journalists in addition to Zhang Zhan, including Chen Qiushi, Li Zehua, and Fang Bin. Last week, The New York Times’ Vivian Wang reported in detail about Zhang’s tenacious effort to provide an unvarnished look at the lockdown of Wuhan:

In her first weeks, Ms. Zhang visited a crematory, a crowded hospital hallway and the city’s deserted train station. On March 7, when Wuhan’s top Communist Party official said residents should undergo “gratitude education” to thank the government for its anti-epidemic efforts, Ms. Zhang walked through the streets, asking passers-by if they felt grateful.

“Is gratitude something you can teach? If you can, it must be a fake gratitude,” she said into the camera afterward. “We’re adults. We don’t need to be taught.”

Ms. Zhang’s videos were often shaky and unedited, sometimes lasting just a few seconds. They frequently showed the challenges of independent reporting in China under the Party’s tightening grip. Many residents ignored Ms. Zhang or told her to leave. If they did talk, they asked her to point the camera at their feet.

[…] Ms. Zhang had never been a citizen journalist before traveling to Wuhan from Shanghai, where she lived, said Li Dawei, a friend who exchanged messages with her often while she was reporting. But she was stubborn and idealistic, he said, to a point that was sometimes difficult to understand. [Source]

From jail, Zhang refused to recognize the legitimacy of her arrest, and has been on hunger strike for months. Her lawyer has told the media that she may not survive these conditions. CNN’s Nectar Gan and James Griffiths reported that prison authorities have been restraining and force feeding her, using treatment that Amnesty International has said amounts to torture:

According to Amnesty International, at one point during her detention Zhang went on hunger strike, during which time she was shackled and force fed, treatment the group said amounted to torture.

Her lawyer Zhang Keke, who visited Zhang earlier this month while she was in detention, described on social media that Zhang had a feeding tube attached to her nose and mouth. He said her hands were tied to prevent her from removing the device, and that she suffered from constant headache and pain in her stomach and throat.

CNN did not immediately receive a response from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on allegations of Zhang’s mistreatment in detention.

Zhang’s lawyer said she attended Monday’s hearing in a wheelchair, as she had become frail during her time in detention. [Source]

For a second year in a row, China has been named the most prolific jailer of journalists in the world. At the end of 2020, 47 journalists were remanded in prison. This year, Zhang is not the only dissident to be put on trial during the holiday season, a period that the Chinese government has historically used to prosecute its opponents. On Monday, ten of the 12 Hong Kongers who were arrested at sea while attempting to flee the city were also tried in a court in Shenzhen, after months of detention. Diplomats and family members of the ten were not allowed to witness the trial. After the ten reportedly pleaded guilty to the charge of illegally crossing the border, the Shenzhen court postponed judgement to an unspecified later date.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, after initially being arrested under minor fraud charges and denied bail, pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai was granted HK$10 million bail by a higher court last week under strict conditions that ban him from using social media, talking to the press, or leaving his home. The decision was decried as “unbelievable” by People’s Daily on Monday, which called Lai, 72, “dangerous.” Lai is scheduled to return to court this week for a hearing as prosecutors have pressed to keep him behind bars.


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