A Chinese citizen journalist has been imprisoned for four years for her live stream reporting from Wuhan as the COVID-19 outbreak unfurled, her lawyer Ren Quanniu said Monday, almost a year after details of an “unknown viral pneumonia” surfaced in the central China city.
Zhang Zhan, 37, the first such person known to have been tried, was among a handful of people whose firsthand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets painted a more dire picture of the pandemic epicentre than the official narrative. She was sentenced at a brief hearing in a Shanghai court for allegedly “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for her reporting in the chaotic initial stages of the outbreak.
“Ms Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech,” her lawyer said before the trial.
Her live reports and essays were widely 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.
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 stutters through painful lockdowns and surging caseloads a year on from the start of the pandemic in Wuhan.
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 favour.
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. By December, she was suffering headaches, giddiness, stomach ache, low blood pressure and throat infection.
“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.”
Requests to the court to release Zhang on bail before the trial and live stream the trial went ignored, her lawyer said.
China’s communist authorities have a history of putting dissidents on trial in opaque courts between Christmas and New Year to minimize 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 COVID-19.