SHANGHAI: A Chinese citizen journalist was imprisoned on Monday for four years for her reporting from Wuhan as the epidemic of Covid-19 began, her lawyer said, almost a year after news of “unknown viral pneumonia” appeared in central China.
“During her reporting during the chaotic initial stages of the outbreak, Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer who arrived at court in a wheelchair, was sentenced at a brief hearing in a Shanghai court for allegedly “picking quarrels and causing trouble.
In February, her live posts and essays were posted on social media sites, catching the ire of officials who disciplined eight whistleblowers for viruses to the point of curbing scrutiny of the government’s reaction to the epidemic.
Beijing congratulated itself on its “extraordinary” progress in containing the virus within its walls, with an economy on the rebound, while painful lockdowns and surging caseloads stuttered through most of the rest of the world a year after the start of the Wuhan pandemic.
During an ongoing global health crisis, managing the information flow was critical in helping China’s communist authorities to reframe the storey in their favour, with President Xi Jinping garlanded by the ruling party of the country for his leadership.
But for anyone who has picked holes in the official storyline, it has come at a serious cost.
According to Zhang Keke, one of her attorneys, the court said Zhang Zhan had spread “false remarks” online, but the prosecution did not fully reveal its facts in court.
We had no means of knowing precisely what Zhang Zhan was accused of doing,” he added, describing it as “a simple, hurried trial.” In return, the defendant “didn’t answer [questions]… As the judge asked her to affirm her name, she declined to respond. Ren Quanniu, another member of Zhang’s defence team, told reporters who were barred from joining the court that the defendant’s mother sobbed loudly as the verdict was read out.
Concerns are mounting over the wellbeing of 37-year-old Zhang, who launched a hunger strike in June and was fed via a nasal tube by compulsion.
Her legal staff said that her health was in decline and that she suffered from vomiting, dizziness and pain in her stomach and that she sat in a wheelchair in court.
When I visited her last week, she said, ‘If they give me a heavy sentence, then until the very end, I will refuse food.’… She thinks she’s going to die in jail,’ said Ren before the courtroom.
“It is an extreme method of protesting against this society and this environment.” In an attempt to reduce Western criticism, China’s communist authorities have a tradition of placing dissidents on trial in opaque courts between Christmas and New Year. The sentencing arrives just weeks before it is planned that an international team of experts from the World Health Organization will arrive in China to study the source of Covid-19.
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In a February essay, Zhang was critical of the early reaction in Wuhan, writing that the government “didn’t give people enough information, then simply locked the city down.” “This is a great human rights violation,” she said.
Rights organisations and embassies have since drawn attention to her cause, while requests to monitor the hearing were refused to diplomats from several countries.