A Chinese journalist was sentenced to 4 years in prison for her reporting on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, according to a December 28, 2020 article from the South China Morning Post. This is the latest known occurrence of retaliation against Chinese whistleblowers who spoke out about the coronavirus when it first began to spread.
Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old citizen journalist, was found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” by the Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Court, according to the article. Zhang’s lawyer Zhang Keke said that his client “attended the trial in a wheelchair and was in poor health.” He later said on social media: “[During the trial] the prosecutor only read out the list of evidence, without showing most of it, including the core evidence. Zhang Zhan said citizens’ speech should not be censored. But apart from that, she basically did not speak.”
Zhang Zhan was “one of the few citizen journalists in China to report on the early experiences of people in Wuhan during the city’s lockdown,” according to the South China Morning Post. The article also states that the other citizen journalists who reported on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan “have either been detained or order to stop their online reporting.”
Since mid-May, Zhang has been kept in a Shanghai detention center and “has maintained her innocence” — in June, she went on a hunger strike and “started refusing to take food to protest against her arrest, according to the article.
During her sentencing, “dozens of people who came from all over the country to support Zhang Zhan were driven away by police, according to witnesses,” the article states. Several activists and supporters claimed that when they arrived to support Zhang at the sentencing, they were turned away by authorities; one individual cited in the article was taken into police custody during the day after he continued to ask police for entrance into the courtroom.
“Zhang Zhan is the one paying the biggest price for Wuhan, a price of blood and tears, of health and life,” a Wuhan resident, who had traveled to Shanghai to support Zhang, said in the article. “Zhang Zhan is unbelievably determined for the truth and faith. As a Wuhan native, I must support her.”
Zhang Zhan and the other citizen journalists who have been punished for speaking out in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic join whistleblowers like the late Dr. Li Wenliang, who worked as an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital. In early February of 2020, Dr. Li tried to warn his coworkers about a mysterious virus that he believed looked like Sars, which led to an epidemic in 2003. He was later reprimanded by local authorities in Wuhan and told to sign a letter stating that he made “false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order,” according to a BBC article. Dr. Li then documented his experience with COVID-19 on Chinese social media, stating that he began coughing on January 10, 2020. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 on January 30 and passed away on February 7. One year later, Dr. Li’s social media is still flooded with support, sadness, and hope from Chinese citizens.