Zhang, a 37-year-old former lawyer, was often critical of the Chinese regime over its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak when she was reporting on the ground in Wuhan, the epicenter of China’s pandemic. She arrived in Wuhan in February, then suddenly vanished in May. A month later, Chinese authorities confirmed that she had been arrested.
On Dec. 28, Zhang was sentenced to four years imprisonment after being convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” an offense the Chinese regime often uses to persecute dissidents.
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has shown once again it will do whatever it takes to silence those who question the Party’s official line, even regarding crucial public health information,” said Pompeo in a statement.
He added: “Her hasty trial, to which foreign observers were denied access, shows how fearful the CCP is of Chinese citizens who speak the truth.” He called on Beijing to release Zhang immediately and unconditionally.
In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s lies, Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan’s uncensored reports from Wuhan gave the world a much-needed window into the outbreak of COVID-19. She should be celebrated for her courage – not imprisoned for it.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) December 29, 2020
Beijing has unleashed tight control of the press and social media since the start of the pandemic. According to Paris-based nonprofit Reporters Without Border (RSF), at least nine Chinese journalists or press freedom defenders have been arrested for their coverage of COVID-19-related issues.
Chinese citizen journalists Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin have been detained and monitored by authorities, according to their friends. They went missing earlier this year and their current whereabouts are still unknown.
Pompeo added that “because of the CCP’s gross malfeasance, the rest of the world relied heavily on uncensored reports from citizen journalists like Zhang to understand the true situation in Wuhan after the CCP-imposed strict media controls were enforced and a controllable outbreak turned into a deadly global pandemic.”
Pompeo also mentioned early whistleblower Li Wenliang, who on Dec. 30 last year warned of an “unknown pneumonia” outbreak on Chinese social media.
After the online post went viral, Li, an ophthalmologist, was summoned to a police station on Jan. 3 and reprimanded for “rumor-mongering.” He was forced to sign a “confession statement,” in which he agreed that he won’t commit any further “unlawful acts.” He eventually died on Feb. 7 after contracting the virus unknowingly while treating an infected patient.
Benedict Rogers, a British human rights activist and founder of London-based nonprofit Hong Kong Watch, wrote via Twitter on Wednesday that “[m]illions of lives and livelihoods around the world might have been saved” had the CCP “listened to and acted upon” Li’s advice.
“The #CCP owes the rest of the world a huge bill in damages and reparations,” Rogers wrote.
Many international rights groups have since voiced concerns about Zhang’s sentence, including RSF.
“Zhang Zhan was only serving the public interest by reporting on the Covid-19 outbreak and should never have been detained, not to mention receive a four-year prison sentence,” stated Cédric Alviani, RSF’s East Asian bureau head, in a statement.
Alviani called on the international community to put pressure on Beijing to release Zhang and other detained journalists.