China sentences citizen-journalist to 4 years in prison for reporting on early days of Wuhan coronavirus outbreak

  •  Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, 37, was sentenced to four years in prison on Monday for her work reporting on the early days of the coronavirus outbreak from Wuhan, China. 
  • She was convicted of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," a "broadly defined" charge "often used by police to stifle dissent," according to the South China Morning Post. 
  • The UN Human Rights office said Zhang's sentencing was "deeply concerning." 
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A Chinese court sentenced a citizen-journalist to four years in prison on Monday for her work reporting from Wuhan during the coronavirus outbreak's early days. 

Zhang Zhan, 37, was convicted of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" by the Pudong New Area People's Court in Shanghai, according to the Associated Press. 

The South China Morning Post explained that the charge is "broadly defined" and "often used by police to stifle dissent." Zhan was given just a year shy of the maximum sentence for the charge. 

The AP reports that Zhan traveled to Wuhan in February to report on how the outbreak was impacting the city.

During her time in Wuhan, Zhan posted short video clips to YouTube, including interviews with Wuhan residents and footage of hospitals, a crematorium, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, according to Reuters. 

In mid-May, she was arrested and accused of spreading false information, giving interviews to foreign media, disrupting public order, and "maliciously" manipulating the outbreak, the AP reports. 

In a tweet on Monday, the United Nations Human Rights office said it is "deeply concerned" by Zhang's sentence.

"We raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020 as an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to COVID-19 & continue to call for her release," the tweet said.

"I don't understand. All she did was say a few true words, and for that, she got four years," Zhang's mother, Shao Wenxia, told Reuters after her sentencing on Monday. 

Zhang's lawyer, Ren Quanniu, told Reuters that they "will probably appeal" the decision. 

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

One of Zhang's other lawyers, Zhang Keke, said before the sentencing that his client was "physically fragile" due to a "long-term hunger strike," according to NBC News. 

"When I met her days ago, her hands were tied to the waist and a nasogastric tube was inserted in her nose," he said. 

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted Monday that China tried to avoid Western media coverage by scheduling the trial during the Christmas holiday period.  

"Beijing's selection of the sleepy period between Christmas and New Year's suggests even it is embarrassed to sentence citizen-journalist Zhang Zhan to four years in prison for having chronicled the uncensored version of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan," Roth tweeted. 

Foreign journalists were also banned from the trial "due to the epidemic," according to Reuters. 

China has been accused of hiding the true extent of the outbreak in its early days, letting the virus get out of control and turn into a pandemic that continues to spread around the world a year later. 

Other Chinese journalists who went missing while reporting on the outbreak, include Fang Bin, who hasn't been seen since February, according to NBC News. Chen Qiushi disappeared that same month, and is now under close surveillance and will not speak publicly, according to the South China Morning Post. Another journalist, Li Zehua, re-emerged after two months missing to say he was forcibly quarantined, NBC News reports.

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