A Chinese journalist who covered the coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the height of the pandemic was sentenced to 4 years in prison on Monday. She was sentenced at a brief hearing in a Shanghai court for allegedly “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” during her reporting in the chaotic initial stages of the outbreak.
Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer turned activist, had traveled to Wuhan in February. The 37-year-old’s live reports on the pandemic and the plight of residents in the central city were widely shared on social media platforms. Her reports had accused authorities of failing to inform residents of the reality of the situation, contrary to the rosy official narrative. Beijing has congratulated itself for the “extraordinary” success in controlling the infection to turn the response of citizens in their favor.
Her live reports and essays were shared on social media platforms in February, grabbing the attention of authorities, who have punished eight virus whistleblowers so far as they defang criticism of the government’s response to the outbreak.
Controlling the information flow during an unprecedented global health crisis has been pivotal in allowing China’s communist authorities to reframe the narrative in their favor. But that has come at a serious cost to anyone picking holes in that storyline.
“Zhang Zhan looked devastated when the sentence was announced,” Ren Quanniu, one of Zhang’s defence lawyers, told reporters confirming the four-year jail term outside Shanghai Pudong New District People’s Court on Monday morning. Her mother sobbed loudly as the verdict was read, Ren added.
Concerns are mounting over the health of 37-year-old Zhang who began a hunger strike in June and has been force-fed via a nasal tube.
“She said when I visited her (last week): ‘If they give me a heavy sentence then I will refuse food until the very end.’
She thinks she will die in prison,” Ren said before the trial. “It’s an extreme method of protesting against this society and this environment.”
UN Human Rights also condemned the brutal action of China against the whistleblower and called it an excessive clampdown on the freedom of expression.
China’s ruling Communist Party tightly controls the media and seeks to block the dissemination of information it hasn’t approved for release. In the early days of the outbreak, authorities reprimanded several Wuhan doctors for “rumour-mongering” after they alerted friends on social media. The best known of the doctors, Li Wenliang, later succumbed to COVID-19.