Human rights groups worldwide have expressed outrage at the four-year prison sentence handed down to citizen journalist Zhang Zhan for reporting on the coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan. A former lawyer, 37-year-old Zhang was arrested on 14 May and formally charged in early November. The indictment alleges that she sent ‘false information through text, video and other media’. Zhang used WeChat, Twitter and YouTube as part of her reporting. She was also accused of giving interviews to overseas media outlets, including Radio Free Asia and the Epoch Times, in order to ‘maliciously stir up the Wuhan Covid-19 epidemic situation’. On 28 December 2020, she was convicted by a Shanghai court of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ (a charge often used against dissidents).
Zhang is not the first to be punished for highlighting the shortcomings of the authorities in their handling of the coronavirus crisis. According to Reporters Without Borders, as the virus spread worldwide, the Beijing regime attempted to silence critical voices who dared to question their response. On 10 March, the Chinese magazine People, an affiliate of the People’s Daily, was withdrawn because it published an interview in which Ai Fen, director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital, criticised the censorship imposed on doctors. On 12 March, political commentator and real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, a member of the Chinese Communist Party, disappeared after denouncing the regime’s failings. In September it was announced that he had been sentenced to eighteen years in prison after supposedly confessing to corruption charges while in custody.
Three other citizen journalists who reported from Wuhan – Li Zehua, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin – disappeared in 2020. Li eventually resurfaced, claiming that he had been forcibly quarantined, while Chen is reportedly staying with his family under government supervision. At the time of writing, the whereabouts of Fang Bin remain unknown.
At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Beijing swiftly introduced new internet regulations that further strengthened the government’s stranglehold on social media. According to the NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders, almost nine hundred internet users have been detained or punished since the beginning of 2020 for sharing information on coronavirus, having been accused by the authorities of spreading ‘false rumours’.
Zhang decided to travel from Shanghai to Wuhan in February 2020 after reading a post online by a resident about life in the city during the outbreak. Once there, she spent three months documenting what she saw on the streets and in hospitals in livestreams and essays. Her reports were widely shared on social media. She highlighted the detention of independent reporters, as well as the harassment of victims’ families. Before her disappearance, Zhang was threatened by the authorities, but in a clip from a video interview with an independent filmmaker, obtained by the BBC, she remained unrepentant and claimed: ‘Maybe I have a rebellious soul … I’m just documenting the truth … I won’t stop what I’m doing because this country can’t go backwards.’
During her pre-trial detention, Zhang went on hunger strike for several months. Amnesty International alleges that Zhang was forcibly fed by officials. She was also shackled and her hands were bound twenty-four hours a day. Her lawyers report that Zhang remains in poor health and had to attend her trial in a wheelchair. A British diplomat attempted to observe the hearing but was denied access. The British Embassy in Beijing tweeted that Zhang’s case ‘raises serious concerns about media freedom in China’. The European Union has also expressed concern at the regime’s restrictions on freedom of expression and access, claiming that prosecutions and incarcerations of human rights defenders, lawyers and intellectuals in China ‘are growing and continue to be a source of great concern’. The EU has demanded Zhang’s immediate release.
This is not the first time that Zhang has been in trouble with the authorities. In 2019, she was detained for two months after writing and sharing articles related to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protest movement.
Readers might like to send appeals expressing concern at the four-year sentence handed down to citizen journalist Zhang Zhan for exercising her right to freedom of expression, as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and urging the Chinese authorities to release Zhang immediately and unconditionally and, pending her release, to ensure that she has regular, unrestricted access to her family and lawyers of her choice and is not subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Liu Xiaoming
Embassy of the People’s Republic of China
49–51 Portland Place
London W1B 1JL
Fax: 020 7636 2981
News: On 13 January 2021, the PEN Freedom of Expression Award was given to Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga. Dangarembga is a novelist, poet, filmmaker and playwright. Her novel This Mournable Body was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize (reviewed in these pages in October 2020). She is also a dedicated activist and a founding member of PEN Zimbabwe. In July 2020, she was arrested by members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police with neither a warrant nor an explanation after participating in a peaceful protest against corruption in Harare. She was subsequently charged with ‘intention to incite public violence’ and released on bail. Her trial has been repeatedly delayed.