An independent Chinese journalist who reported from Wuhan at the height of the initial coronavirus outbreak has been jailed for four years by a Shanghai court, her lawyer said Monday.
A former lawyer, Zhang Zhan traveled to the central Chinese city in February to report on the pandemic and subsequent attempts to contain it, just as the authorities began reining in state-run and private Chinese media.
She disappeared from Wuhan in May and was later revealed to have been detained by police in Shanghai, a city more than 640 kilometers (400 miles) away, and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” an offense commonly used to target journalists and human rights activists.
Zhang is the first citizen journalist known to have been sentenced for her role in reporting on the coronavirus pandemic.
One of many
Zhang is one of a number of independent reporters who have been detained or disappeared in China since the beginning of the pandemic, as the authorities clamped down on coverage of the virus and propaganda outlets went into overdrive portraying Beijing’s response as effective and timely.
In February, Chen Qiushi, who had live-streamed videos from Wuhan during the city’s lockdown and posted reports on social media, disappeared. In September, he was reported to be under “state supervision.” Two other independent journalists — Li Zehua and Fang Bin — were also detained following their coverage of the Wuhan outbreak.
“Under the guise of fighting the novel coronavirus, authorities in China have escalated suppression online by blocking independent reporting, information sharing, and critical comments on government responses,” Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a Hong Kong-based group, said in a report earlier this year.
China is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and tightly controls the press at home while blocking most foreign media outlets via the Great Firewall, its vast online censorship and surveillance apparatus.
In March, China expelled journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, in an unprecedented move against the foreign press. Beijing said the move — which came amid a wave of critical reporting about China’s initial response to the coronavirus — was a response for recent restrictions by Washington on how Chinese state media operates in the US.
While sporadic outbreaks have popped up and been swiftly suppressed with lockdowns and quarantines, China has largely controlled the virus, allowing the country to return to relative normality.
Restrictions on the press, however, have not lifted, and Chinese state media has begun aggressively pushing an alternative origin story for the pandemic, with claims the coronavirus may have been circulating outside of the country prior to the initial outbreak in Wuhan.