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Chinese citizen journalist jailed after accusing officials of Covid cover-up

A Chinese citizen journalist who accused Wuhan authorities of a cover-up in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic has been sentenced to four years in jail, as Beijing looks to assert its official narrative that it has successfully managed the outbreak.

Zhang Zhan, a lawyer turned activist and independent blogger, was detained in May after she posted dozens of videos taken in the central Chinese city where the virus was discovered in December 2019.

Zhang, 37, was sentenced on Monday by a Shanghai court for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a common charge for activists deemed to have undermined China’s social stability, according to Zhang Keke, one of her lawyers.

The Chinese government has sought to downplay its early mishandling to the virus in favour of emphasising its later successes in smothering transmission. China has been enjoying a sharp economic recovery on the back of largely controlling the virus, even as much of the world remains mired in the doldrums.

Citizen journalists and independent media outlets reported chaotic scenes in Wuhan during the first weeks of the outbreak, with internet censors and government propagandists overwhelmed by the outcry.

Public anger climaxed in early February when Chinese social media was filled with tributes to Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor who was reprimanded by police after raising awareness of the then unknown disease before he died from it.

Police attempt to stop journalists from reporting outside the Shanghai court where Zhang Zhan was sentenced on Monday © AFP via Getty Images

But the official narrative was quickly reasserted. As well as Zhang, at least three other citizen journalists — Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua — were detained after posting critical reports about the government’s response and are still awaiting trial.

Even accounts from more moderate voices, such as Wuhan-based writer Fang Fang, who kept a popular online diary of daily life in the city, have faced censorship and attacks from conservative nationalists.

Zhang posted clips of interviews and commentary over three months on Chinese social media sites, documenting repeated failures by authorities in Wuhan. She also posted items on Twitter and YouTube, US platforms that are blocked in China. 

She spoke with struggling local business owners and met families facing pressure from police to keep quiet about their lost loved ones. In her last video on May 13, she accused the government of “violating human rights” in failing to protect the livelihoods of workers in the city. 

Mr Zhang, the lawyer, posted the verdict on Twitter and said his client had barely spoken in court, other than to assert that a citizen’s speech should not be censored.

He added that Zhang arrived at the hearing in a wheelchair. Zhang has repeatedly staged hunger strikes to protest the charges against her, according to accounts from her lawyers.

The arrival of winter has sparked warnings from Chinese officials of the need to ward off potential relapses using strict local lockdowns and mass testing after a handful of locally transmitted infections were discovered. 

The National Health Commission on Monday reported 21 new symptomatic infections, 15 of which were imported by people returning from abroad and six in north-east Liaoning province.

In Beijing, the discovery of 10 cases in the capital’s Shunyi district sparked local authorities to declare “wartime” measures and carry out hundreds of thousands of swab tests.

Dozens of human rights lawyers and activists who openly pushed for greater government accountability and protections of civil liberties have been jailed since Xi Jinping became Chinese president in 2012.

Chinese courts regularly leave cases deemed sensitive to the final weeks of the year during the holiday period, a time when many western diplomats and journalists are away on holiday.


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