Chinese journalist faces 5 years in prison for Wuhan coronavirus reporting

Chinese journalist faces 5 years in prison for Wuhan coronavirus reporting

A Chinese journalist could be jailed for up to five years for reporting on the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. The journalist, Zhang Zhan, 37, stands accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” fielding interviews with foreign media outlets and “maliciously spreading” misinformation about the viral outbreak within the Chinese city, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). If found guilty, prosecutors have recommended a sentence of four to five years.

Her trial is set for Monday at the Shanghai Pudong New District People’s Court, where reporters gathered early morning to catch a glimpse of the trial proceedings, which were then censored by police. China tends to crackdown and put dissidents on trial during the holiday period surrounding Christmas, so as to fly under the radar with regard to criticism from Western governments. This is what they did in the cases of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and veteran dissident Chen Xi, among others.

At the onset of the outbreak, Zhang shared recorded and shared livestream reports as well as written accounts of the novel coronavirus as it barreled throughout the Chinese republic, primarily in Wuhan.The whistleblower was detained by the Chinese government in May, following the release of her reports which criticize China’s response to the outbreak, within the early stages of the viral spread.Zhang categorically stated within her reporting that the Chinese government “didn’t give people enough information, then simply locked down the city,” at the onset of the outbreak, adding that it was “a great violation of human rights.”According to the report, Zhang has been on hunger strike since June. Her lawyers claim that she is being force-fed via a nasal feeding tube, and is currently in poor health.”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,” said Zhang’s defense lawyer Ren Quanniu, according to AFP. “It’s an extreme method of protesting against this society and this environment.”Another one of her lawyers, Zhang Keke, added that Zhang is currently “restrained 24 hours a day, she needs assistance going to the bathroom,” according to AFP. “She feels psychologically exhausted, like every day is a torment.”Wuhan itself stands accused of acting too slowly in the early stages of the outbreak amid fears of disrupting the economy or displeasing China’s leadership in Beijing. Critics say media censorship and the silencing of whistleblowers gave the virus more time to spread undetected.The communist government detained multiple journalists who reported on the coronavirus in China during the early months of the viral spread, with the most high-profile case being that of the Chinese ophthalmologist at a hospital in Wuhan, Li Wenliang, who was reprimanded for “spreading rumors” about the coronavirus before it was officially recognized by the country – he later died from COVID-19 weeks later.China has also shown little appetite for an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 or for allowing more scrutiny of its efforts in the early stages of the outbreak, preferring to focus on the country’s rapid economic and psychological recovery.There are little to no press freedoms in China. To paint a larger picture, the communist republic ranked 177th on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, three spots behind the Islamic Republic of Iran (173rd)  – a country which instituted a national internet in 2012 in order to stymie Western influence and blocks up to 27% of all websites at any given time,  where all the media outlets are state-run and access to Twitter and other social media platforms are blocked  – except for politicians, who have on numerous occasions used them to voice antisemitic and anti-Israel rhetoric to the international community, considering Iranians themselves would never be able to see the posts.While internet censorship in Iran has been classified as pervasive to its citizens, the same sentiments could be shared in China. The “Great Firewall of China,” as it’s noted popularly, is one of the most comprehensive internet censorship systems in the world. The Chinese government monitors internet access and hyper-controls the publishing and viewing of online materials within the country, with over sixty laws regulating what Chinese citizens can and can not do. Specific sites, video games and even YouTube is forbidden within the communist republic.Content such as pornography, controversial topics or that which advocates crime or violence is strictly forbidden and censored. The state-owned internet service providers even employ teams to develop and construct sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms to police and remove said content.The two countries were both accused by the index of censoring “their major coronavirus outbreaks extensively.” China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the international community’s most notorious jailers of journalists.”Censorship is quite an industry in China. Every village has spies to watch neighbors; the mail and the poster boards are watched, say expat Chinese,” Forbes Magazine said in a 2006 report. “It is said (by dissidents) that China has 40,000 Web police hard at work just in Beijing, looking over the shoulders of Web users and composing lists of banned words that cause a Web search to freeze up or a site to automatically be blocked.”Along the same lines, Amnesty International said that “China currently has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world. Amnesty International has documented at least 54 Chinese Internet users it believes are presently imprisoned for such acts as signing petitions, calling for an end to corruption, disseminating information about SARS (a separate coronavirus outbreak in 2002) and planning to establish pro-democracy groups.”Reuters contributed to this report.

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