A Chinese citizen journalist who was arrested after ‘reporting the truth’ about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan was today jailed for four years.
Zhang Zhan, 37, has been found guilty of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ for her criticism of the Wuhan government’s handling of the crisis at the peak of the outbreak.
Ms Zhang – the first citizen journalist 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.
Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, 37, who was arrested after ‘reporting the truth’ about the coronavirus outbreak from Wuhan has been jailed for four years
Police attempted to stop journalists recording footage outside the Shanghai Pudong New District People’s Court where Ms Zhang was sentenced
Ms Zhan, 37, has been found guilty of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ for her criticism of the Wuhan government’s handling of the crisis at the peak of the outbreak. Pictured: Police tried to stop journalists recording footage
Her lawyer Ren Quanniu said they will likely appeal her four-year sentence handed down at a court in Pudong, Shanghai.
Before the trial – which ended at 12.30pm local time – he said: ‘Ms Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech.’
Criticism of China’s early handling of the crisis has been censored, and whistle-blowers, such as doctors, have been warned off speaking out.
Pro-democracy activists hold placards with the picture of the Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan as they march to the Chinese central government’s liaison office, in Hong Kong
Zhan – the first citizen journalist 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. Pictured: Police outside the court during her trial
State media have credited success in reining in the virus to the leadership of President Xi Jinping.
A New York-based human rights organisation earlier told MailOnline that Ms Zhang was being punished ‘for doing exactly what the world desperately needed: reporting on the coronavirus from Wuhan’.
Home to some 11million people, the Chinese provincial capital caught international attention last December when the coronavirus first broke out there before spreading around the globe, with at least 1.7 million reported deaths so far.
In Shanghai, police enforced tight security outside the court where the trial opened seven months after Ms Zhang’s detention, although some supporters were undeterred.
One of Ms Zhang’s lawyers Zhang Keke (centre) spoke to the media outside the court before the trial
Foreign journalists were denied entry to the court ‘due to the epidemic’, court security officials said. Pictured: Police covering a camera to stop journalists recording outside the court
Ms Zhang’s lawyer Ren Quanniu (pictured outside the court) said they will likely appeal her four-year sentence handed down at a court in Pudong, Shanghai
In Shanghai, police enforced tight security outside the court where the trial opened seven months after Ms Zhang’s detention, although some supporters (pictured outside China’s Liaison Office) were undeterred
Pro-democracy supporters outside China’s Liaison Office to protest her detention today
Activist Alexandra Wong holds placards during a protest to urge for the release of 12 Hong Kong activists arrested as they reportedly sailed to Taiwan for political asylum and Ms Zhang outside China’s Liaison Office today
Ms Zhang – a former lawyer – arrived in Wuhan on February 1 from her home in Shanghai. Pictured: A demonstrator calling for her to be released
A man in a wheelchair, who came from the central province of Henan to demonstrate support for Ms Zhang as a fellow Christian, wrote her name on a poster before police arrived to escort him away.
Foreign journalists were denied entry to the court ‘due to the epidemic’, court security officials said.
Ms Zhang – a former lawyer – arrived in Wuhan on February 1 from her home in Shanghai.
One video published by Ms Zhang on YouTube purports to show the ER department of the Hubei Provincial People’s Hospital overrun by patients who had to sleep in the corridor
In another clip, Ms Zhang alleged that one crematorium in the former epicentre was working in the middle of the night in mid-February, thought to be burning the bodies of COVID-19 victims
Her short video clips uploaded to YouTube consist of interviews with residents, commentary and footage of a crematorium, train stations, hospitals and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Detained in mid-May, she went on a hunger strike in late June, court documents revealed.
Her lawyers told the court that police strapped her hands and force-fed her with a tube.
In another video series, Ms Zhang said she wanted to visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been accused of being the origin of the coronavirus. The institute was surrounded by high-voltage electric fences and run by the military, Ms Zhang said while filming its exterior
China has repeatedly denied the allegations put against the Wuhan virus institute (pictured). Beijing insists that the WHO found no evidence that the novel coronavirus was man-made
By December, she was suffering headaches, giddiness, stomach ache, low blood pressure and a throat infection.
Another one of Ms Zhang’s lawyers, Zhang Keke, described the grim situation of his client after visiting her in a detention centre in Shanghai earlier this month – according to a post on Weiquan Net, a Chinese website which publishes updates about activists.
Her restraint belts had made it difficult for her to sleep at night and she needed assistance for the toilet, the post read.
Ms Zhang was ‘completely exhausted’ and ‘felt every day is torment’, and could not stop crying during the meeting with her lawyer, the article said.
She allegedly refused to halt her hunger strike even though her lawyer had pleaded her to stop on behalf of her family and friends.
The 37-year-old former lawyer was formally indicted by public prosecutors of Shanghai for allegedly spreading false information, according to court papers circulating online
She also allegedly denied the official accusations that she had fabricated false information and insisted that all her reports had come from first-hand interviews and real-location visits in Wuhan.
According to Weiquan Net, Ms Zhang’s persecution documents were released by the People’s Procuratorate of Pudong New District of Shanghai on September 15.
One of the official files accused Ms Zhang of ‘maliciously hyping the epidemic of the novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan’ through popular Chinese messaging app WeChat, as well as Twitter and YouTube.
Wuhan caught international attention last December when the coronavirus first broke out there before spreading around the globe, killing at least 1.7 million people so far. Pictured, patients infected with Covid-19 are seen at a makeshift hospital in Wuhan on February
Ms Zhang’s supporters have hailed her for revealing ‘the truth’ of the coronavirus outbreak
The prosecutor claimed that Ms Zhang had spread ‘a large amount of false information’ through text and videos and accepted interviews with foreign media outlets.
Requests to the court to release Zhang on bail before the trial and livestream the trial went ignored, her lawyer said.
Other citizen-journalists who had disappeared without explanation included Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua.
While there has been no news of Fang, Li re-emerged in a YouTube video in April to say he was forcibly quarantined.
Chen, although released, is under surveillance and has not spoken publicly, a friend has said.