Chinese Communist authorities have handed down a four-year prison sentence to a citizen journalist who reported on early hospital overcrowding and other conditions in Wuhan province as the COVID-19 outbreak spread.
Zhang Zhan, 37, was accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” with her reporting, according to The New York Times, which added that the harsh sentence will most likely be viewed as a “stark warning to those challenging the government’s official narrative of the pandemic.”
Reuters further reported that Zhang is the first person thus far known to have been put on trial related to the coronavirus outbreak which originated in Wuhan. Her firsthand accounts of empty city streets and crowded hospitals portrayed the initial stages of what would become a global pandemic far worse than the official narrative from Beijing.
Ren Quanniu, Zhang’s attorney, told Reuters, “We will probably appeal.”
“Ms. Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech,” Ren added.
The Chinese government heavily censored criticism over its early handling of the outbreak, with authorities warning whistleblowers and physicians against speaking out publicly. China’s state-run media apparatus has credited the leadership of President Xi Jinping for successfully reining in the spread of COVID.
That said, President Donald Trump has regularly blamed China for doing too little to prevent the virus’ spread from its own borders, essentially seeding the entire world.
Zhang, a former attorney, traveled to Wuhan from Shanghai Feb. 1. Short video clips uploaded to a YouTube account contained interviews with Wuhan residents as well as her own commentary describing what she saw. Footage of crematorium, train stations, hospitals, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology — where some believe the virus was created, possibly as part of ongoing experimentation — was also uploaded.
“The government’s way of managing this city has just been intimidation and threats,” she stated in one video, the Times reported. “This is truly the tragedy of this country.”
Chinese authorities detained Zhang in mid-May, and in late June she went on a hunger strike according to court documents seen by Reuters reporters. Her attorneys say that police force-fed her through a tube after strapping her hands. Nevertheless, she was suffering a number of ailments by December including headaches, low blood pressure, a throat infection, stomach problems, and bouts of giddiness.
That said, other citizen journalists in China including Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi, and Li Zehua, all disappeared, most briefly, without explanation.
Reuters notes that Chen has been released but is under surveillance, while Le reemerged in a YouTube video in April, saying he was quarantined forcibly. Fang has not been heard from since he disappeared.
In June, Chinese government health officials released a report claiming that the outbreak was not covered up and the country’s response was appropriate.
“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.”
But critics say otherwise; some have pointed to an early admission via Chinese media in April that the initial death toll in Wuhan City was underreported by 50 percent.
President Trump has routinely criticized Beijing over the virus.
“It could have been stopped right where it came from, China,” he said in early March as he referred to the disease as the “China virus.”
“It would have been much better if we had known about this a number of months earlier,” he added.
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