Zhang Zhan, an independent Christian journalist who covered the COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown in Wuhan, China, has been sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” The 37-year-old, a former lawyer who maintains her innocence, has been detained since last May and is said to be in failing health following a hunger strike.
One of her attorneys says Zhang attended the trial in a wheelchair and wasn’t shown evidence against her. Prosecutors accused the journalist of “publishing large amounts of fake information” and conducting interviews to “maliciously stir up” the pandemic. Dozens of people who traveled to Shanghai to support Zhang were reportedly turned away from the courtroom by police.
Charge Is Used to Stifle Dissent
The Chinese government uses the broad charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” to hinder dissidents, say critics. Activist Wu Yangwei calls Zhang’s sentence “too heavy” but not surprising. “This regime stands on two pillars: lies and power,” he says. “It covers up the truth about the pandemic with lies so it can carry on its rule…and uses power to intimidate and shut up the ordinary people, and heavy sentences (to punish) people who are not afraid of the intimidation.”
Last spring, Zhang traveled to Wuhan to cover the COVID-19 outbreak, including conditions for patients and quarantined citizens. In May, the last video she posted mentioned governmental “intimidation and threats,” and by June she’d been detained and returned to Shanghai. According to Amnesty International, the journalist was force fed and shackled after initiating a hunger strike and now copes with headaches and other maladies.
Zhang’s friend Li Dawei describes warning the journalist about heading to Wuhan but says she was determined to find and tell the truth. “She is a staunch Christian and said it was God’s will,” says Li. An attorney who visited Zhang in detention says she requested a Bible and quoted 1 Corinthians 10:13, about enduring temptation with God’s help.
World Reacts to Zhang Zhan’s Sentence
One Wuhan resident who tried unsuccessfully to observe Zhang’s trial says the journalist “is the one paying the biggest price for Wuhan, a price of blood and tears, of health and life. Zhang Zhan is unbelievably determined for the truth and faith.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement condemning the “sham prosecution and conviction” of Zhang and calling for her immediate release. Citing restrictions and manipulation by China’s communist government, Pompeo writes, “The rest of the world relied heavily on uncensored reports from citizen journalists like Zhang to understand the true situation in Wuhan.” He adds that America will always support freedom of expression for Chinese citizens.
Human rights activists say Chinese officials are using the pandemic to further suppress information-sharing through various media, including the internet.
The British Embassy in Beijing says Zhang’s case “raises serious concerns about media freedom in China,” noting that she’s “one of at least 47 journalists in detention.” China leads the world in jailing reporters, and the Committee to Protect Journalists says about half of those currently in custody are Uighur Muslims reporting on oppression in Xinjiang.