A Chinese citizen journalist who was detained after reporting on the government’s coronavirus response could spend five years in prison for it

Zhang Zhan

  • A Chinese citizen journalist who was arrested after covering the country's coronavirus response could be imprisoned for as long as five years.
  • Zhang Zhan, 37, was arrested in May, after sharing videos and social media posts about life in Wuhan during the outbreak.
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists said authorities arrested her for "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," and that she could face a harsh sentence.
  • Three other citizen journalists have disappeared after covering the coronavirus in Wuhan, where the pandemic began.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

An independent journalist working in China was arrested after covering the country's coronavirus response in May, and could be jailed for up to five years.

Zhang Zhan, 37, went missing on May 14 in Wuhan, China — the city where the novel coronavirus that spiraled into a pandemic was first recorded.

She went missing the day after she shared a video which described empty streets and life in the city after Wuhan lifted its lockdown.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), authorities in Shanghai announced on May 15 that Zhang had been arrested, claiming was detained for "picking quarrels and provoking trouble."

Zhang arrived in Wuhan in February, and shared interviews with people in the city who were struggling to deal with the city's response to the virus. Wuhan was the first city in the world to be put under lockdown to try and stop the virus from spreading.

She has now been detained for more than six months, and her lawyer said she was refusing food.

A screenshot from the last video Zhang Zhan posted on her YouTube channel before she was arrested.
YouTube/ 张展

If she is convicted, she could spend five years in prison, the CPJ said.

The Guardian reported that the indictment sheet said that Zhang had sent "false information through text, video and other media through the Internet media such as WeChat, Twitter and YouTube."

And the indictment noted that Zhang had spoken to international media, saying: "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 Guardian.

Quartz reported that she also showed videos of her being questioned by police about she was doing, and highlighting the story of a mother whose daughter was sick with the virus after going to the hospital.

Zhang's lawyer, Wen Yu, told Radio Free Asia in September that she was refusing food to protest her detention.

He said then that "She has lost a lot of weight."

He resigned from the case in October, citing pressure from authorities.

The One Free Press coalition, an advocacy group for journalists, said that Zhang has been refusing food for six months, and that her cellmates have been feeding her.

The CPJ called for her immediate release on May 18, four days after she went missing and three days after local authorities announced that she had been arrested.

Steven Butler, the committee's head for the Asia region, said then from Washington DC: "China professes pride in its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but appears deathly afraid of allowing independent journalists like Zhang Zhan to freely tell the story of what is happening."

"Chinese authorities should free Zhang immediately and allow her to continue the important work of documenting the impact of the disease."

A friend of Zhang's said that she saw it as her duty to report what was happening in Wuhan, Quartz reported: "As a committed Christian, Zhang thought it was her responsibility to tell people what was really happening in Wuhan. She visited the tombs of those who died of coronavirus and even went to local crematoriums to check whether the official death statistics were accurate."

"She took huge risks in doing those things."

The Guardian reported that Zhang had already been detained twice in China, including in 2019 after she supported the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. 

As Quartz reported, three other citizen journalists—Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, and Li Zehua— all disappeared in February after covering the coronavirus in Wuhan.

Insider is covering Zhang Zhan's case as part of The One Free Press Coalition, which raises awareness of the world's persecuted journalists.

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