A Chinese citizen journalist, Zhang Zhan, is facing up to five years in jail for reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. Zhang has been detained since May and is being charged with spreading false information.
The former lawyer is currently being held in a detention facility in Shanghai, where she has been for more than six months. The accusations against her are for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” in reference to her reporting on social media and streaming accounts. The indictment sheet released on 16 November 2020 said that she had, “sent false information through text, video and other media through internet media such as WeChat, Twitter and YouTube”. She also “accepted interviews from overseas media Free Radio Asia and Epoch Times and maliciously speculated on Wuhan’s COVID-19 epidemic”, according to the prosecution document.
NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) has followed the case, reporting that Zhang had started a hunger strike on 2 September 2020 and the detention centre authorities had begun force feeding her. Her lawyers say she is in bad health, thin and weak. In August 2020, one of her lawyers was taken off her case as the Shanghai Pudong District Procuratorate refused to recognise his legal credentials, and illegally claimed that Zhang herself had to sign entrustment papers despite her family already having done so. The lawyer was not allowed to examine any case documents.
This is also not the first time Zhang has been targeted. She was detained in September 2019 for reporting on the Hong Kong protests on suspicion of “picking quarrels”, but was released on 26 November 2019. A few days before the release of specific charges against Zhang, a media report was released claiming an “information blackout” on her case, including claims that her mother was yet to see any of the indictment charges.
Press freedom in China
Such charges are not rare, but are often used against journalists in China.
China is 177th on the Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index, out of 180 countries.
Other journalists have been detained for reporting on COVID-19, such as Chen Quishi, who was detained in January, and Li Zehua, who went missing in February after travelling to Wuhan to report on Chen’s disappearance, but was released in April. Fang Bin, a Wuhan resident, went missing at a similar time but has not been seen since. CHRD documented 897 cases involving Chinese internet users penalised by police for speaking out online or sharing information about COVID-19 between 1 January 2020 and 26 March 2020.
Lawyer Ma Wanjun was detained on 17 June 2020 for the same charges as Zhang, “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”, over his online speech. Several others were detained at the same time from a WeChat group, according to CHRD. Authorities accused Ma of funding “hostile foreign forces” after he gave money to families of detained lawyers, students or people who had asked for his help online.
China has a harsh criminal justice system, with a 99% conviction rate, but many defendants are denied their full legal rights. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are officially 48 journalists currently in prison in China.
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Photo credit: Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD)