Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years in prison on Dec. 28, becoming the first known reporter to be sentenced by Beijing for providing firsthand information about the CCP virus pandemic inside China.
Zhang, a 37-year-old former lawyer, was convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” by the Pudong New Area People’s Court in Shanghai, according to her defense lawyers, Zhang Keke and Ren Quanniu.
Zhang appeared in court in a wheelchair and her mother cried loudly after hearing her sentence.
“Picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “subversion of state power” are two common charges the Chinese regime uses to imprison dissidents.
Lawyer Zhang Keke told Hong Kong outlet Apple Daily after the court’s sentencing that Zhang wasn't in good health following a months-long hunger strike. He added that his client didn't agree with the four-year sentence, saying that her comments shouldn’t be subject to any review, let alone that she should be charged for a crime.
Zhang Keke said he had no idea whether his client would continue the hunger strike in protest.
Zhang arrived in Wuhan, epicenter of China’s pandemic, in early February, and began posting reports on her social media accounts. She was often critical of the measures taken by Chinese authorities in stopping the spread of COVID-19.
She first went missing in May before Chinese authorities confirmed her arrest a month later. Her indictment, which became publicly available in mid-November, showed that Zhang was accused of charges including “distributing false information through text, video, and other media” through online media.
The court document also accused Zhang of "maliciously speculating” about Wuhan’s pandemic by “speaking to overseas media Radio Free Asia and The Epoch Times.”
Zhang was interviewed several times by the Chinese-language Epoch Times. In one interview in March, Zhang rejected claims by Chinese officials that the virus causing COVID-19 originated from the United States.
She said that Beijing blamed the virus on the United States because it wanted to divert attention away from China, in particular to alleviate public anger about the pandemic.
In mid-March, Zhao Lijun, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, in a Twitter post accused the U.S. Army of bringing the virus to Wuhan.
Zhang had been on hunger strike for months before her Dec. 28 court appearance. In a social media post on Dec. 17, lawyer Ren Quanniu wrote that Zhang was so skinny and out of shape that he could hardly recognize her.
Ren added that Zhang said she viewed the hunger strike as a general call for all those who have faced injustice.
The courthouse was heavily secured on Dec. 28. According to AFP, Chinese police pushed journalists and observers away from the court’s entrance as Zhang arrived.
BBC World’s coverage of Zhang’s four-year sentence was censored in China.
Leo Lan, a research and advocacy consultant at U.S.-based rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders, told the BBC that the four-year sentence was “heavy,” and it shows that Beijing “is very determined to silence her and intimidate other citizens who tried to expose what happened in Wuhan."
"I'm concerned about the fate of other detained citizens who also reported news about the pandemic,” Lan said.
The whereabouts of three other Chinese citizen journalists Chen Qishui, Fang Bin, and Li Zehua currently remain unknown after they went missing earlier this year.
Amnesty International also expressed concerns about Zhang’s sentence.
“Citizen journalists like #ZhangZhan were the primary, if not only, source of uncensored first-hand information during the early days of #COVID19. #China must stop persecuting journalists and other individuals merely for reporting the truth,” Amnesty wrote in a tweet.