China jails citizen-journalist for four years over Wuhan virus reporting
SHANGHAI (Reuters) – A Chinese court on Monday handed down a four-year jail term to a citizen-journalist who reported from the central city of Wuhan at the peak of this year’s coronavirus outbreak on the grounds of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, her lawyer said.
Zhang Zhan, 37, the first such person known to have been tried, was among a handful of people whose firsthand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets painted a more dire picture of the pandemic epicentre than the official narrative.
“I don’t understand. All she did was say a few true words, and for that she got four years,” said Shao Wenxia, Zhang’s mother, who attended the trial with her husband.
Zhang’s lawyer Ren Quanniu told Reuters: “We will probably appeal.”
The trial was held at a court in Pudong, a district of the business hub of Shanghai.
“Ms Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech,” Ren had said before the trial.
Critics say that China deliberately arranged for Zhang’s trial to take place during the Western holiday season to minimize Western attention and scrutiny. U.S. President Donald Trump has regularly criticised Beijing for covering up the emergence of what he calls the “China virus”.
The United Nations human rights office called in a tweet for Zhang’s release.
“We raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020 as an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to #COVID19 & continue to call for her release,” it said.
Criticism of China’s early handling of the crisis has been censored, and whistle-blowers such as doctors warned. State media have credited the country’s success in reining in the virus to the leadership of President Xi Jinping.