Citizen Journalist Faces Up to 5 Years in Jail for Reporting on COVID-19 in Wuhan

Zhang Zhan

A Chinese citizen journalist is now facing up to five years of imprisonment for reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China.

Details of her arrest: Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old activist and former lawyer, went missing on May 14 and was then criminally detained by Shanghai police a day later while reporting on the outbreak in the city, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

  • Her formal arrest was approved by the Pudong New District Procuratorate on June 19, and she is currently held at the Pudong New District Detention Center in Shanghai.
  • Dai Peiqing, Zhang’s lawyer visited the detention center on Sept. 9 and found that she started a hunger strike on Sept. 2 while officials tried to force-feed her.
  • She was indicted on Sept. 15, and the court accused Zhang of sending “a large amount of false information” on social media platforms and “accepted interviews with overseas media Radio Free Asia and Epoch Times and maliciously stirred up the Wuhan epidemic situation.”
  • Wen Yu, Zhang’s defense lawyer, visited her on Sept. 28 and reported that she seemed very thin and weak.
  • Shanghai Pudong District Procuratorate also reportedly refused to allow Ren Quanniu, another lawyer, to examine any of the case documents. They did not accept his credentials and claimed Zhang must sign the entrustment papers first, despite her family having done so.
  • The court recommended a jail sentence of four to five years after receiving charges of “picking up quarrels and provoking trouble,” a charge often used by authorities against activists who criticize the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to Radio Free Asia.
  • Specific details of her charges only surfaced online after reports emerged of an alleged “information blackout” on her case, The Guardian reported.

Pressure from the Chinese government: During Wen’s last visit to Zhang, the lawyer claimed he was under pressure and “wouldn’t be able to continue,” Radio Free Asia reported.

  • Li Dawei, a rights lawyer from Gansu Province, said it was difficult to reach out to Zhang’s mother throughout the case. He added this could suggest the authorities are also pressuring her family.
  • “But Dai Peiqing refused to discuss any of the details of the case or the content of the indictment with Zhang,” Li said.
  • “[Dai] told Zhang that her lawyer Wen Yu had withdrawn from the case and that Dai is the only lawyer representing her now,” Li added.
  • Ren also called out Dai to be more transparent with Zhang’s family about her case.
  • “This shouldn’t be a secret case, and it’s not against the law for a defense attorney to talk to the family about the basic facts of the case or to provide the family with a copy of the indictment,” the lawyer told RFA. “Neither does it violate the professional ethics of lawyers. She seems to be doing things according to the government’s wishes.”

What Zhang has done: Zhang traveled to Wuhan on Feb. 3 to report what was happening in the city amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • She published several stories on social media, including the detention of independent reporters and how the families were harassed after they sought accountability during the outbreak.
  • China’s state police accused Zhang of “fabricating” two details on her report, specifically about how Wuhan citizens were forced to pay a fee to get tested for COVID-19 and that residents of the city were allegedly given rotten vegetables during the strict lockdown.
  • This is not the first time Zhang ran into trouble with Chinese authorities. She was detained in September 2019 for voicing her support for the Hong Kong protest. The court forced her to undergo a psychiatric examination twice before being released on Nov. 26, 2019.
  • Other citizen journalists who had been detained by the authorities while reporting on the pandemic in Wuhan include Li Zehua and Chen Qiushi.

Featured Image Screenshot via 张展

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