Covid-19 journalist sentenced to 4 years for exposing truth
Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, is a citizen journalist who has actively spoken out about politics and human rights issues in China. In February 2020, Zhang Zhan travelled to Wuhan, then the centre of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. She used online platforms (including WeChat, Twitter and YouTube) to report on the detention of other independent reporters as well as the harassment of victims’ families.
On 18 December 2020, Zhang’s defence lawyer received notification from Pudong New District People’s Court that her trial would take place on 28 December. On the day of the trial, Zhang Zhan was brought to the courtroom in a wheelchair. Zhang’s health has been a concern, as she has been forcibly fed by the authorities since she began a hunger strike in June 2020.
During the trial, prosecutors accused Zhang of using social media platforms to disseminate large volumes of false information. According to Zhang’s defence lawyer, the prosecutor failed to present specific examples of false information in any of her social media posts.
Zhang Zhan started a hunger strike in June 2020 to protest her detention and assert her innocence. Despite her intention to continue with her protest, detention centre authorities reportedly began forcibly feeding her through a feeding tube, and it is reported that her cellmates were also involved in the act of forcibly feeding her. Zhang’s defence lawyer said she is physically very weak and suffering from stomach pain, dizziness and weakness while walking. It is also reported that Zhang Zhan was forced to wear shackles and that her hands were restrained 24 hours a day for more than three months as punishment for her hunger strike. To avoid being forced to wear shackles and having her hands bound by detention authorities, Zhang resumed eating on 28 December 2020.
Citizen journalists were the primary, if not only, source of uncensored and first-hand information about the COVID-19 outbreak in China. There are not many citizen journalists as they are not able to obtain official accreditation to report news. Citizen journalists in China face consistent harassment and repression for reporting news and disseminating information that is censored by the government.
There have been many reports of independent journalists and activists harassed by authorities for sharing information about COVID-19 on social media. These include outspoken lawyer and citizen journalist Chen Qiushi, who reported being harassed by the authorities after posting footage from hospitals in Wuhan, and Wuhan resident Fang Bin, who was briefly taken away by the authorities after posting a video purporting to show corpses of COVID-19 victims.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in China, numerous articles relating to the virus have been censored, including those by mainstream media organizations such as Caijing (财经) and a subsidiary of Beijing Youth Daily (北京青年报). Certain social media posts, sensitive hashtags and demands for freedom of expression have all been quickly deleted or censored.
The crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (寻衅滋事罪) under Article 293 of the Chinese Criminal Law is a broadly defined and vaguely worded offence that has been widely used to target activists and human rights defenders. Although the crime originally applied to acts that disrupted order in public places, the scope has expanded since 2013 to include online space as well. Anyone convicted could face a maximum of five years in prison.