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Courageous Chinese citizen journalist who reported the truth on COVID-19 learns her fate

A courageous Chinese citizen journalist named Zhang Zhan, 37, has spent the better part of a year suffering in a Chinese prison for publically telling the truth on COVID-19. She reported on crowded hospitals and the conditions in Wuhan earlier this year and was sentenced Monday to four years for the offense of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Reuters, citing her lawyer, Ren Quanniu, reported that there will likely be an appeal on her sentence handed down by a court in Pudong, Shanghai, and said his client believes she is “being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech.” Appeals are notoriously unsuccessful in China where freedom of speech can result in a death sentence.

She is the first citizen journalist known to have been tried and she was among a handful of people whose firsthand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets painted a horrific picture of the pandemic epicenter. It was the exact opposite of what the Chinese government claimed.

Zhang has spent a great deal of time on a hunger strike and may not survive her incarceration.

The New York Times reported that the prison sentence is intended to be seen as a “stark warning to those challenging the government’s official narrative of the pandemic.”

President Trump has been very vocal that the blame for the coronavirus lies with the handling of the outbreak in China where the pandemic originated. He has said that it is because of Beijing’s mishandling that the disease was able to spread so quickly throughout the world.

China has hotly defended its handling of the virus, releasing an at-length report on their response.

“The Chinese government did not delay or cover up anything,” National Health Commission Chairman Ma Xiaowei said. “Instead, we have immediately reported virus data and relevant information about the epidemic to the international community and made an important contribution to the prevention and control of the epidemic around the world.”

Zhang posted videos on YouTube that showed interviews with residents and images of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. For that, she simply disappeared.

She was critical of the Chinese response and was eventually detained in May. “The government’s way of managing this city has just been intimidation and threats,” she said in one video, according to the New York Times. “This is truly the tragedy of this country.”

State media has obediently credited success in reining in the virus to the leadership of President Xi Jinping.

A New York-based human rights organization said that Zhang was being punished “for doing exactly what the world desperately needed: reporting on the coronavirus from Wuhan.”

In Shanghai, police enforced tight security outside the court where the trial opened seven months after Zhang’s arrest, although some supporters were undeterred.

A man in a wheelchair, who came from the central province of Henan to demonstrate support for Zhang as a fellow Christian, wrote her name on a poster before police arrived to escort him away.

Foreign journalists were denied entry to the court ‘due to the epidemic’.

Zhang is a former lawyer who arrived in Wuhan on February 1 from her home in Shanghai.

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.

She was arrested in mid-May and then went on a hunger strike in late June, court documents revealed.

Her lawyers told the court that police strapped her hands and force-fed her with a tube. She is restrained 24 hours a day.

As of December, Zhang suffered from headaches, giddiness, a stomach ache, low blood pressure, and a throat infection. One of her attorneys described the situation as grim.

Zhang refuses to comply and she is also allegedly denying the official accusations that she had fabricated false information and insisted that all her reports had come from first-hand interviews and real-location visits in Wuhan.

Zhang’s persecution documents were released by the People’s Procuratorate of Pudong New District of Shanghai on September 15.

One of the official files accused her of ‘maliciously hyping the epidemic of the novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan’ through popular Chinese messaging app WeChat, as well as Twitter and YouTube.

The prosecutor claimed that Zhang had spread ‘a large amount of false information’ through text and videos and accepted interviews with foreign media outlets. “She also accepted interviews from overseas media Free Radio Asia and Epoch Times and maliciously speculated on Wuhan’s Covid-19 epidemic,” the indictment said. A sentence of four to five years was recommended.

Bail has been denied. Zhang appeared in court in a wheelchair and her mother burst into tears when the verdict was announced.

At least half a dozen citizen journalists have been targeted in Wuhan. Fang Bin was arrested in February but his detention location remains a secret. Chen Mei and Cai Wei are awaiting trial in Beijing after they were arrested in April for archiving censored information about the virus. Chen Qiushi, detained in Wuhan in February, was released to his parents’ home under close surveillance.

In December, authorities arrested a Bloomberg journalist, Haze Fan, on unspecified national security allegations; human rights activist, Ou Biaofen, after he publicized the case of an activist sent to a psychiatric facility; and documentary journalist Du Bin. Ou and Du were both arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Authorities also reportedly delayed the trial of Australian writer Yang Henjun, charged with espionage and allegedly tortured during his two years in detention. On Sunday a court refused to hear an appeal against the four-year sentence for human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, who publicly called for constitutional reforms including multi-candidate elections.

“The slew of detentions of those who speak out will only further impede the flow of information about the situation in China,” Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqiu Wang said. “Governments around the world should press Beijing to release wrongfully detained journalists and activists immediately.”

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