China jails citizen journalist over coronavirus coverage

A Chinese court on Monday sentenced citizen journalist Zhang Zhan who reported on the coronavirus outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan to four years in prison.

The 37-year-old former lawyer was found guilty by the Shanghai Pudong New Area People's Court of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," a broad charge that is often leveled at activists, South China Morning Post reported.

Zhang, arrested in May, was charged in connection to her reporting on China's handling of the coronavirus in the city of Wuhan, ground zero of the COVID-19 pandemic. The indictment accuses Zhang of having moved from her home in Shanghai to Wuhan in early February as it was battling a severe outbreak of the virus.

Authorities charged Zhang with spreading false information about the city's coronavirus outbreak on WeChat, Twitter and YouTube as well as during media interviews with Western news organizations.

According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a coalition of Chinese and international human rights NGOs, Zhang produced numerous reports from Wuhan, including on the arrest of other reporters and government harassment of families of COVID-19 victims.

Citing Chinese-language news reports, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Zhang disappeared on 14 May after she published a YouTube video critical of the government a day prior. On 15 May, authorities announced she was being detained hundreds of miles away in Shanghai.

Zhang has maintained her innocence, protesting the charges by conducting a hunger strike.

Earlier this month, Amnesty International said Zhang has been force-fed by officials and has been shackled and bound for more than three months, raising fears over her health and and "further torture and other ill-treatment."

Zhang Keke, one of her lawyers, said in a statement following a visit with his client this month that she was restrained 24 hours a day and was being force-fed by a feeding tube.

"She needs assistance going to the bathroom and she tosses and turns in her sleep," the statement said. "She feels psychologically exhausted, like every day is a torment."

A report released earlier this month by the Committee to Protect Journalists showed a record number of journalists were jailed in 2020 with China responsible for jailing more journalists than any other nation with 47.

The report published 15 December said 47 journalists were jailed in China, with at least two, including Zhang, who were arrested for their coverage of the pandemic.

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