Chinese Journalist Sentenced to Four Years in Prison

The CCP silences another COVID-19 whistleblower for “maliciously spreading” information.

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The police move to drive away journalists, citizens and rights activists who asked to enter the courtroom before the trial of citizen journalist Zhang Zhan. (Photo: Handout)

The sad story of Dr. Li Wenliang takes only a few sentences in the telling.

Li was one of the first to report a strange new virus in Wuhan, China, months before anyone had even whispered “Coronavirus”.

In any other nation, Dr. Li Wenliang would have been celebrated. Had Chinese authorities heeded his early warning, many might have been saved. COVID-19 might never have left mainland China at all.

Instead of alerting the international medical community to the dangers of a new novel coronavirus, he was jailed for “spreading rumors”, “making false comments” which “disturbed the social order.”

Social order, around the world, was about to become a great deal more disturbed, but we didn’t know it.

Dr. Li Wenliang eventually succumbed to COVID-19 himself. The Chinese Communist Party, never interested in any narrative that might disturb the social order of the Chinese Communist Party’s firm grip on China, lionized Dr. Li Wenliang posthumously

At the same time, the CCP continued to silence reporting on COVID.

The latest victim is a Chinese citizen journalist who reported on the government’s handling of the outbreak in Wuhan. She has been sentenced to four years in prison.

Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old journalist, criticized the handling of the virus from the central city of Wuhan at the peak of the outbreak and was detained in mid-May. She was among a handful of people offering a different first-hand account of the crowded hospitals and empty streets than the official government narrative.

Ms. Zhang uploaded short clips to YouTube that documented what she saw in the streets, hospitals, a crematorium and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. She uploaded interviews with residents and essays that quickly spread on social media, despite warnings from authorities.

“Maybe I have a rebellious soul… I’m just documenting the truth. Why can’t I show the truth?” she said in a clip of the interview reported by BBC; “I won’t stop what I’m doing because this country can’t go backwards.”

Zhang was formally charged in early November, for sending “false information through text, video and other media through [platforms like] WeChat, Twitter and YouTube,” according to the indictment sheet. Additionally, she is accused of accepting interviews with foreign media and “maliciously spreading” information about the virus outbreak in Wuhan.

“Ms. Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech,” her lawyer, Ren Quanniu, said before the trial.

“Zhang Zhan wanted to help ordinary Wuhan people. She wanted to understand their sufferings and let the wider world know,” said her lawyer Zhang Keke.

After going on a hunger strike in late-June to protest her arrest, Zhang told her lawyers her hands were bound and she was force-fed by the police with a tube. They said that by December she was suffering from headaches, stomach pains, low blood pressure and a throat infection.

“Restrained 24 hours a day, she needs assistance going to the bathroom, and she tosses and turns in her sleep,” lawyer Zhang Keke said. “She feels psychologically exhausted, like every day is a torment.”

Though large parties with no social distancing have been captured on video in China, the pandemic was reason enough to deny foreign journalists entry to the court, according to court security officials.

Her lawyers say requests to release Ms. Zhang on bail before trial went ignored, as well as requests to livestream the trial.

“We will probably appeal,” the lawyer, Ren Quanniu, told Reuters.

China’s early handling of the crisis has been criticized by a myriad of governments and health authorities abroad, but censored within its own country. Criticism from whistleblowers, including doctors, has been censored, and those whistleblowers have been warned, forced to recant, jailed, and worse, as state media continues to tout the success of CCP President Xi Jinping in his handling of the outbreak.

Other citizen-journalists who have disappeared in China this year with no explanation are Fang Bin, Chen Quishi and Li Zehua.

Li resurfaced in a YouTube video in April, saying he was forcibly quarantined, while Chen is reported to be staying with family but under government surveillance. There has been no news or information regarding the whereabouts of Fang Bin.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee released a statement on the sentencing of Zhang Zhan.

Lead Republican Rep. McCaul wrote: “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. While they lie to the world and their own people about their culpability in an attempt to cover up their guilt, the truth is on display with the jailing of citizen journalist Zhang Zhan for four years. 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.”

Senator Marsha Blackburn, one of many U.S. Senators outspoken on the subject of human rights abuses in China, wrote on Twitter, “This is what happens in Communist China if you try to tell the truth about the COVID-19 outbreak. You’re jailed for [‘]picking quarrels and provoking trouble[’].”

On Tuesday, the European Union demanded China release Ms. Zhang and other jailed reporters, lawyers and human rights activists.

“Prior to her detention, Zhang Zhan had been reporting about the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan,” said Peter Stano, EU foreign policy spokesman.

“According to credible sources, Zhang has been subject to torture and ill-treatment during her detention and her health condition has seriously deteriorated. It is crucial that she receives adequate medical assistance.”

The EU also demanded the release of Yu Wensheng, a human rights lawyer jailed on December 13. The U.S. government has long advocated for the release of Yu Wensheng and many other human rights defenders jailed in China.

In June, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter, “The wave of repression that began five years ago in China continues today. We call for justice for lawyers and human rights defenders like Yu Wensheng, who was sentenced to four years in jail for defending victims of the 2015 #709crackdown.”

(Contributing journalist, Allegra Nokaj) (Contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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