A Chinese citizen journalist held since May for her livestream reporting from Wuhan as the COVID-19 outbreak unfolded was sentenced to four years in prison on Monday, almost a year after details of an “unknown viral pneumonia” surfaced in the central China city.
Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, was accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for her reporting in the chaotic initial stages of the outbreak.
Her live reports and essays were widely shared on social media platforms in February, grabbing the attention of authorities, who have punished eight virus whistle-blowers so far as they try to stamp out criticism of the government’s response to the outbreak.
“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.
Beijing has congratulated itself for “extraordinary” success in controlling the virus inside its borders, with an economy on the rebound while much of the rest of the world suffers through painful lockdowns and surging caseloads a year since the first cases of the then unknown virus emerged in Wuhan.
Controlling the information flow has been crucial in allowing China’s communist authorities to reframe the narrative in their favour.
About a dozen supporters and diplomats gathered outside Shanghai Pudong New District People’s Court on Monday morning, but police pushed journalists and observers away from the entrance as the defendant and her lawyer arrived.
Zhang, who is 37, began a hunger strike in June, according to her lawyers, and has been force-fed via a nasal tube as concerns grow about her health.
“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.
“It’s an extreme method of protesting against this society and this environment.”
‘Every day a torment’
China’s communist authorities have a history of putting dissidents on trial between Christmas and New Year to minimise Western scrutiny.
The trial comes just weeks before an international team of World Health Organization experts is expected to arrive in China to investigate the origins of the pandemic.
Another lawyer said Zhang’s health was in decline and she suffered from headaches, dizziness and stomach pain.
“Restrained 24 hours a day, she needs assistance going to the bathroom,” Zhang Keke, who visited her on Christmas Day, wrote in a note circulated on social media.
“She feels psychologically exhausted, like every day is a torment.”
Zhang wrote in a February essay that the government “didn’t give people enough information, then simply locked down the city”.
“This is a great violation of human rights,” she wrote.
Human rights groups have also drawn attention to Zhang’s case.
Authorities “want to use her case as an example to scare off other dissidents from raising questions about the pandemic situation in Wuhan earlier this year,” said Leo Lan, research and advocacy consultant at the Chinese Human Rights Defenders NGO.
Zhang, who has maintained her innocence, is the first of a group of four citizen journalists detained by authorities earlier this year after reporting from Wuhan to face trial.
Previous attempts by the AFP news agency to contact the other three – Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua – were unsuccessful.