, 37, was found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” according to one of her defense lawyers Zhang Keke, who attended her hearing. The offense is commonly used by the Chinese government to target dissidents and human rights activists.
A former lawyer, Zhang traveled to the central Chinese city in early 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.
For more than three months, she documented snippets of life under lockdown in Wuhan and the harsh reality faced by its residents, from overflowing hospitals
to empty shops
. She posted her observations, photos and videos on Wechat, Twitter
— the latter two of which are blocked in China.
Her postings came to an abrupt stop in mid-May, and she was later revealed to have been detained by police and brought back to Shanghai, a city more than 640 kilometers (400 miles) away from where she lived.
In her indictment
, prosecutors accused her of “publishing large amounts of fake information” and receiving interviews from overseas media outlets, including Radio Free Asia and the Epoch Times, to “maliciously stir up the Wuhan Covid-19 epidemic situation.”
Zhang is the first citizen journalist known to have been sentenced for her role in reporting on the coronavirus pandemic. But it is not her first run in with the authorities.
According to her indictment, she was twice detained for 10 days in 2019 for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” but the document did not specify what had resulted her detention.
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.