A Chinese court on Monday sentenced a citizen journalist who reported on the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak to four years in prison.
The journalist, 37-year-old Zhang Zhan, traveled to Wuhan from her Shanghai home in February to witness the chaos wrought by the virus in the city where it first surfaced. She shared videos of crowded hospitals and residents concerned about their incomes for months.
While Chinese news media is strictly controlled by the state, Zhang pushed back against the government in her independent reporting, questioning why it had tried to silence whistle-blowers about the virus and asking whether Wuhan’s lockdown had been too harsh.
She also criticized the government’s efforts to fight accusations that it initially tried to conceal the virus, which has involved arresting citizen journalists, threatening grieving family members and censoring social media posts.
“The government’s way of managing this city has just been intimidation and threats,” she said in a video that ultimately was her last. “This is truly the tragedy of this country.”
Zhang was arrested and brought back to Shanghai after being accused of spreading lies and making up false information.
Zhang is protesting her arrest and indictment with a prolonged hunger strike, according to her lawyers, leading the authorities to force-feed her through a feeding tube while restraining her hands so she could not pull it out.
Her trial on Monday, on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” lasted less than three hours. Prosecutors recommended a sentence between four and five years.
Zhang attended the trial in a wheelchair, having lost a significant amount of weight, and spoke little during the hearing, one of her lawyers wrote on WeChat, according to the New York Times.
She said the people’s speech should not be censored at the trial that few were allowed to attend.
Zhang is one of at least four citizen journalists to suddenly disappear from Wuhan after producing reports that conflicted with the government’s narrative. While Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua were reportedly later released, Fang Bin is still missing.
Representative Michael McCaul (R., Texas), the lead Republican for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of the China Task Force, rebuked China for their treatment of Zhang in a statement on Monday.
“The Chinese Communist Party is directly responsible for turning what could have been a local outbreak into a global pandemic that has infected more than 80 million people worldwide, killing almost 2 million,” he said. “While they lie to the world and their own people about their culpability in an attempt to coverup their guilt, the truth is on display with the jailing of citizen journalist Zhang Zhan for four years.”
He continued: “Zhang Zhan should not be in jail – she should be celebrated for risking her own safety to warn the Chinese people and the world about this destructive virus.”