Detained citizen journalist in China faces jail for reporting on Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan

A Chinese citizen journalist who reported on the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan could face five years in jail after being formally charged with spreading false information.

Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old former lawyer, was detained in May while covering stories on the Covid-19 pandemic, which first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, and taken to Shanghai.

According to the newly released indictment papers this week, Zhang is accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – a charge often levelled against activists and journalists in China.

Zhang is said to have travelled to Wuhan from Shanghai in early February to report from the first epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The non-profit Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said she “…reported numerous stories including the detentions of other independent reporters and harassment of families of victims seeking accountability via her WeChat, Twitter and YouTube accounts”.

A CHRD statement said police detained her on May 14 and took her back to Shanghai where she was placed under criminal detention on May 15 on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.

On June 19, she was formally arrested, and on September 18, 2020, she criminally indicted and the case transferred to Pudong New District Court for prosecution.

Zhang’s indictment says she sent “a large amount of false information” that “maliciously stirred up the Wuhan epidemic situation”.

“Zhang’s lawyer Dai Peiqing was granted a meeting on September 9, 2020. He learnt that Zhang Zhan had started a hunger strike on September 2 and detention centre authorities had begun to forcibly feed her. He reported that her health was very poor. Zhang Zhan received another visit from her lawyer Wen Yu on September 28. The lawyer reported afterwards that Zhang seemed very thin and weak,” CHRD said.

“Zhang Zhan is being prosecuted purely for reporting on the pandemic in Wuhan. She faces 4-5 years in prison for sharing information from the ground. As we can see by the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese government’s suppression of information affects everyone,” CHRD told HT in a statement.

“It should be of global concern that Zhang Zhan faces prison for her reporting on Covid-19,” the statement added.

Zhang is not the only Chinese citizen journalist detained for covering the outbreak in Wuhan.

Chen Mei and Cai Wei are two other citizen journalists who are in detention for doing Covid-19-related news stories from Wuhan.

Citizen journalist Li Zehua who went missing from the first outbreak epicentre Wuhan in February reappeared weeks later, saying that he had been quarantined by security forces in the city for two weeks, and then for more days in his hometown.

Two more citizen journalists Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin are still missing.

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