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Shangai, China, Dec 28 –
Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was sentenced today to four years in prison for “provoking altercations and looking for trouble” because of her reports on the first outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan (central China), the Hong Kong’s Apple Daily reported today.
The newspaper, which quotes one of her lawyers, points out that Zhang refused to accept the charges, considering that this information -published through Chinese platforms such as WeChat and others prohibited in the country, such as Twitter or YouTube- should not be censored.
According to Amnesty International (AI), her work in Wuhan focused on reporting the arrests of other independent reporters and harassment of relatives of victims of the coronavirus during what is considered the first worldwide outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) noted in September that the woman had been arrested for publicizing that Wuhan citizens had received rotten food during the city’s 11-week confinement or were forced to pay fees to be tested for coronavirus.
The trial was held today in a court in the eastern city of Shanghai – where the defendant resides – with a strong police presence and only her family members in attendance.
Zhang, who was arrested in late May, began a hunger strike in September that has caused her physical condition to be “very weak,” according to her defense, which claims that the authorities force-feed her through a tube and force her to wear shackles.
Another of her lawyers revealed Zhang’s intention, 37, to continue that hunger strike “even if she dies in prison” if the sentence were serious.
The prosecution had requested a sentence of four to five years in prison for “repeatedly publishing a large number of false information” and accepting interviews with foreign media to “maliciously exaggerate” the situation of the coronavirus in Wuhan.
Human rights organizations protested the sentence: “The Chinese government has once again held a farce of a trial over Christmas, as the authorities want to detour attention of these ‘sensitive’ cases while diplomats and journalists are on vacation,” CHRD investigator Leo Lan told EFE.
In his opinion, the “harsh” condemnation of Zhang is “alarming” and is a sign that Beijing wants to “intimidate others from drawing attention to the pandemic situation in Wuhan earlier this year.
AI activist Gwen Lee said in a statement that “citizen journalists like Zhang Zhan were the primary, if not the only, source of first-hand and uncensored information during the early days of COVID-19,” and demanded that the regime “stop persecuting journalists and other citizens just for reporting the truth.”
Other citizens who also reported on the news from Wuhan disappeared or were arrested this year, such as businessman Fan Bing, lawyer Chen Qiushi or young reporter Li Zehua, although the latter was released in April.
“Anyone who praises the Chinese government’s ‘success’ in containing the virus should take this into account. This is an integral part of the Chinese Communist Party’s model of pandemic control,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) China researcher Yaqiu Wang lamented on Twitter.
In Wuhan, local authorities were slow to provide some of the information available about the outbreak because, according to then-mayor Zhou Xianwang, they needed approval from higher ups to do so.