Police stand at the entrance of the Shanghai Pudong New District People’s Court in Shanghai. Leo Ramirez/ AFP
A Chinese citizen journalist was jailed for four years for her livestream reporting from Wuhan as the Covid-19 outbreak unfurled, her lawyer said on Monday, almost a year after details of an “unknown viral pneumonia” surfaced in the central China city.
Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, 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.
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.
“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.”
China’s communist authorities have a history of putting dissidents on trial in opaque courts 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 Covid-19.
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 was critical of the early response in Wuhan, writing 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.
The court said she had spread “false remarks” online, according to Zhang Keke.
Rights groups have also drawn attention to her 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 is the first to face trial of a group of four citizen journalists detained by authorities earlier this year after reporting from Wuhan.
Previous attempts by AFP to contact the other three — Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua — were unsuccessful.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has collected extensive virus samples, leading to unproven allegations that it may have caused the original outbreak by leaking the virus into the surrounding community. China has strongly denied that possibility and has promoted unproven theories
The team arrived in Wuhan on Jan.14 and after two weeks of quarantine, visited key sites like the Huanan seafood market, the location of the first known cluster of infections, as well as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been involved in coronavirus research.
Wuhan has been praised for its sacrifice in the service of the nation, turning it into a sort of Stalingrad in China’s war against the virus, commemorated in books, documentaries, TV shows and florid panegyrics from officials including head of state and leader of the Communist Party Xi Jinping.
According to the government, 37,291 people were discharged from hospitals and health centres in the last 24 hours, taking the total number of cured to 30,781,263 till date as the virus continued to infect less than one lakh people over the last 53 days.
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