A Chinese citizen journalist who began independently documenting Wuhan’s response to the coronavirus pandemic from February to May was sentenced to four years in prison in Shanghai on Monday. Former lawyer Zhang Zhan was charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble" by the Shanghai Pudong New District People’s Court before receiving a four year sentence. Zhang is among other citizen journalists who were arrested and detained this year for posting their own social media and YouTube coverage of Wuhan’s handling of the pandemic.
Zhang began following the Chinese government’s response to the global virus back in February. Through her YouTube videos and her Twitter posts, she revealed the overwhelmed conditions city hospitals were in, discussed how harsh she believed Wuhan’s pandemic lockdown to be and traveled around the city attempting to talk to passersby, many of whom did not want to appear on camera or speak to her. On her platforms, Zhang was vocal about her disdain for what she described as, essentially, the government lying about how well it was handling the virus, according to the New York Times.
In between visiting crowded hospital hallways full of beds and crematoriums, and reporting on city residents being charged for COVID tests advertised as free on social media, the former lawyer would also criticize the government for severely mishandling its response to the virus. She also accused the country of silencing whistleblowers like doctors and journalists — a claim backed up by the arrests and eventual releases of journalists Li Zehua and Chen Qiushi, and the disappearance of journalist Fang Bin. Doctor Li Wenliang, who attempted to warn the world of the severity of the coronavirus in December 2019, also had his concerns dismissed as a rumor before succumbing to the virus in February.
Her sentence comes after months of speculation over how the Chinese government might punish her. Zhang was arrested in May for her coverage on the grounds of "lying" about Wuhan’s response to the pandemic. She has been on a hunger strike in the seven months since and has had to be fed through a feeding tube. According to a WeChat message from one of her lawyers, Zhang Keke, Zhang arrived at her trial in a wheelchair due to her frail state. The New York Times reported that her trial was over in less than three hours. Another one of Zhang’s lawyers, Ren Quanniu, told Reuters before her trial that Zhang “believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech.” Following her sentence, he confirmed “We will probably appeal.”
Also present at Zhang’s trial was her mother, Shao Wenxia, who voiced her confusion and sadness for her daughter’s sentence. “I don’t understand. All she did was say a few true words, and for that she got four years,” she told Reuters.
Zhang received an outpouring of support from people and organizations on her side following Monday’s sentence. The United Nations’ Human Rights’ office tweeted “#China: We are deeply concerned by the 4-year prison sentence imposed on citizen journalist Zhang Zhan. We raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020 as an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to #COVID19 & continue to call for her release.” Human rights organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders echoed this: “CHRD condemns the Chinese govt’s unjust punishment of citizen journalist #ZhangZhan. The 4-year jail sentence is #China’s defiant challenge to free press and free expression.”
The New York Times has reported that at least 11 of Zhang’s supporters attempted to attend her trial before being escorted to a police station. Journalists attempting to cover the trial were also turned away because of the pandemic, according to Reuters.