A Chinese court handed down a four-year jail term on Monday to a citizen-journalist who reported from the central city of Wuhan at the peak of last year’s coronavirus outbreak in China.
The journalist stood accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” fielding interviews with foreign media outlets and “maliciously spreading” misinformation about the viral outbreak within the Chinese city, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). Prosecutors initially recommended a sentence of four to five years.
Zhang Zhan, 37, the first such person 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 epicenter than the official narrative.
“We will probably appeal,” her lawyer, Ren Quanniu, told Reuters, adding that the trial at a court in Pudong, a district of China’s business hub of Shanghai, ended at 12.30 p.m., with Zhang being sentenced to four years.
“Ms Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech,” he had said before the trial.
Her trial occurred on Monday at the Shanghai Pudong New District People’s Court, where reporters gathered early morning to catch a glimpse of the trial proceedings, which were then censored by police.
Police enforced tight security outside the court where the trial opened seven months after Zhang’s detention, although some supporters were undeterred.
Foreign journalists were denied entry to the court “due to the epidemic,” court security officials said.
China tends to crack down and put dissidents on trial during the holiday period surrounding Christmas, so as to fly under the radar with regard to criticism from Western governments. This is what they did in the cases of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and veteran dissident Chen Xi, among others.
At the onset of the outbreak, Zhang shared recorded and shared livestream reports as well as written accounts of the novel coronavirus as it barreled throughout the Chinese republic, primarily in Wuhan.
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.
The whistleblower was detained by the Chinese government in May, following the release of her reports which criticized China’s response to the outbreak in the early stages of the viral spread.
Zhang categorically stated within her reporting that the Chinese government “didn’t give people enough information, then simply locked down the city,” at the onset of the outbreak, adding that it was “a great violation of human rights.”
According to the report, Zhang has been on hunger strike since June. Her lawyers claim that she is being force-fed via a nasal feeding tube, and is currently in poor health.
“She said when I visited her [last week]: ‘If they give me a heavy sentence then I will refuse food until the very end,'” her lawyer said, according to AFP. “She thinks she will die in prison. It’s an extreme method of protesting against this society and this environment.”
By December, she was suffering headaches, giddiness, stomach ache, low blood pressure and a throat infection.
Another one of her lawyers, Zhang Keke, added that Zhang is currently “restrained 24 hours a day; she needs assistance going to the bathroom,” according to AFP. “She feels psychologically exhausted: like every day is a torment.”
Wuhan itself stands accused of acting too slowly in the early stages of the outbreak amid fears of disrupting the economy or displeasing China’s leadership in Beijing. Critics say media censorship and the silencing of whistleblowers gave the virus more time to spread undetected.
The virus has spread worldwide to infect more than 80 million people and kill over 1.76 million, paralyzing air travel as nations have thrown up barriers against it that have disrupted industries and livelihoods.
The communist government detained seven whistleblowers and journalists who reported on the coronavirus in China during the early months of the viral spread, with the most high-profile case being that of Li Wenliang, the Chinese ophthalmologist at a hospital in Wuhan who was reprimanded for “spreading rumors” about the coronavirus before it was officially recognized by the country. He died from COVID-19 a few weeks later.
Other citizen-journalists who have disappeared without explanation included Fang Bin, Li Zehua and Chen Qiushi.
While there has been no news of Fang, Li re-emerged in a YouTube video in April to say he was forcibly quarantined, while Chen, although released, is under surveillance and has not spoken publicly, a friend has said.
China has also shown little appetite for an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 or for allowing more scrutiny of its efforts in the early stages of the outbreak, preferring to focus on the country’s rapid economic and psychological recovery.
There are little to no press freedoms in China. To paint a larger picture, the communist republic ranked 177th on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, four spots behind the Islamic Republic of Iran (173rd) – a country that instituted a national Internet in 2012 in order to stymie Western influence, blocks up to 27% of all websites at any given time, and where all the media outlets are state-run and access to Twitter and other social media platforms are blocked – except for politicians, who have on numerous occasions used them to voice antisemitic and anti-Israel rhetoric to the international community, since Iranians themselves would never be able to see the posts.
While Internet censorship in Iran has been classified as pervasive to its citizens, the same sentiments could be shared in China. The “Great Firewall of China,” as it’s popularly referred to, is one of the most comprehensive Internet censorship systems in the world. The Chinese government monitors Internet access and hyper-controls the publishing and viewing of online materials within the country, with over sixty laws regulating what Chinese citizens can and cannot do. Specific sites, video games and even YouTube is forbidden within the communist republic.
Content such as pornography, controversial topics or that which advocates crime or violence is strictly forbidden and censored. The state-owned Internet service providers even employ teams to develop and construct sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms to police and remove such content.
The two countries were both accused by the index of censoring “their major coronavirus outbreaks extensively.” China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the international community’s most notorious jailers of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
“Censorship is quite an industry in China. Every village has spies to watch neighbors; the mail and the poster boards are watched, say expat Chinese,” Forbes magazine said in a 2006 report. “It is said (by dissidents) that China has 40,000 Web police hard at work just in Beijing, looking over the shoulders of Web users and composing lists of banned words that cause a Web search to freeze up or a site to automatically be blocked.”
Along the same lines, Amnesty International also said in 2006 that China “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.” According to the CPJ report, Beijing has jailed some 47 prisoners accused of subversion charges.
In March, the human rights watchdog said that “the government’s handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak has fueled criticism of the government – including the initial cover-up of the epidemic and restrictions on information – that is clearly in the public’s interest. In response to the swell in online criticism, a host of new [online] terms have become ‘sensitive.'”
“China’s censorship system is perplexing. The list of ‘sensitive’ words is constantly changing, and is never publicly revealed,” Amnesty added. “There are some words that certain users cannot write, but other users can. As a result, people are always self-censoring in an attempt to beat the system.”
Categories: Politics & Law