Coronavirus: Chinese citizen journalist faces jail for Wuhan reporting

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Originally published by BBC on November 17, 2020

A Chinese citizen journalist who covered Wuhan’s virus outbreak is facing up to five years in jail, according to newly released documents.

Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old former lawyer, has been held in detention since she was arrested in May.

She is accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – a charge often used against activists in China.

Ms Zhang is not the first citizen journalist who has run into trouble for reporting on the then virus-hit Wuhan.

At least three disappeared in February. One, Li Zehua, reappeared in April saying he had been “quarantining”.

It later emerged the second, Chen Qiushi, had been placed under government supervision, while the whereabouts of the third journalist, Fang Bin, is still unknown.

Chinese authorities are known to clamp down on activists who speak out.

Hunger strike

According to an indictment sheet which has now emerged, Ms Zhang made her way to Wuhan in February, where she reported on numerous stories. According to NGO the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), her reports included the detention of other independent journalists and the harassment of families of victims who were seeking accountability.

But on 14 May she went missing from Wuhan, says CHRD. A day later, it was revealed she had been detained by police in Shanghai, more than 400 miles (640km) away.

On 19 June, she was formally arrested in Shanghai. Almost three months later, on 9 September, her lawyer was a granted a meeting with her.

The CHRD says Ms Zhang had gone on a hunger strike to protest against her arrest. On 18 September, her lawyer received a phone call that she had been indicted. She was formally charged last Friday.

The indictment sheet, which emerged on Monday, alleges she sent “false information through text, video and other media through [platforms like] WeChat, Twitter and YouTube”. She was also accused of accepting interviews with foreign media outlets and “maliciously spreading” information about the virus in Wuhan.

A sentence of four to five years was recommended.

This is not the first time Ms Zhan has run into trouble with authorities. According to CHRD, she was summoned by police in Shanghai in September 2019 and detained for voicing support for activists in Hong Kong.

She was reportedly forced to undergo psychiatric examination while in detention.

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