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Chinese Citizen Journalist Jailed for Virus Reporting

Pro-democracy supporters protest for the release of 12 Hong Kong activists arrested as they reportedly sailed to Taiwan and for citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, outside China's Liaison Office, in Hong Kong, China December 28, 2020.
Chinese Citizen Journalist Jailed for Virus Reporting
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Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan has been sentenced to four years in jail for her reports on the COVID-19 crisis in Wuhan, China.

Zhang’s lawyer confirmed the punishment on Monday. The jail sentence comes almost a year after details of an “unknown viral pneumonia” first came out of the central Chinese city.

Zhang, a former lawyer, was sentenced at a short hearing in a Shanghai court. She was charged with starting “quarrels and provoking trouble" for her reporting in the early part of the health crisis.

A video screenshot taken December 28, 2020 shows citizen journalist Zhang Zhan in an undated video. (Credit: AFP Photo/YouTube)
A video screenshot taken December 28, 2020 shows citizen journalist Zhang Zhan in an undated video. (Credit: AFP Photo/YouTube)

Zhang’s live reports and writings were widely shared on social media in February. They got the attention of Chinese officials, who have so far punished eight virus informers.

The Chinese government continues to fight criticism of its response to the virus.

Controlling the story

China’s government has praised itself for great success in controlling the virus inside its borders. It also notes its improving economy. Much of the rest of the world is still suffering from business closures and rising infections one year after the pandemic began in Wuhan.

Controlling the spread of information during a worldwide health crisis helped China's communist leadership. Such control has come at a high cost to anyone who publicly questioned official actions and statements.

That includes Zhang Zhan.

She was critical of the early response in Wuhan, writing in February that the government "didn't give people enough information, then simply locked down the city.”

"This is a great violation of human rights," she wrote.

Concerns are growing over Zhang’s health. The 37-year-old began a hunger strike in June. She has been force-fed through a tube in her nose.

One of her lawyers, Ren Quanniu, said before the trial: "She said when I visited her (last week): 'If they give me a heavy sentence then I will refuse food until the very end.' ... She thinks she will die in prison.”

Another lawyer, Zhang Keke, said Zhang's health was poor and she suffered from head and stomach pain. She needs help going to the bathroom, the lawyer wrote in a note that spread on social media. He visited her on December 25.

Zhang is the first to face trial from a group of four citizen journalists detained earlier this year after reporting from Wuhan.

China's leadership has a history of putting activists on trial between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays to lessen criticism from Western countries.

Zhang’s trial took place just weeks before an international team of World Health Organization experts is expected to arrive in China. They will be there to investigate the origins of COVID-19.

I’m Alice Bryant.

The Agence France-Presse reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

journalist – n. the activity or job of collecting, writing, and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio

pneumonia – n. a serious disease that affects the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe

quarrel – v. to argue about or disagree with something

provoke – v. the cause the occurrence of a feeling or action

response – n. something that is said or written as a reply to something

tube – n. a long, hollow object that is used especially to control the flow of a liquid or gas

origin – n. the point or place where something begins or is created