A Chinese court has handed a four-year jail term to a citizen journalist who reported from the central city of Wuhan at the peak of last year’s coronavirus outbreak

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Pro-democracy activists old placards with the picture of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan as they march.

A Chinese court has handed a four-year jail term to a citizen journalist who reported from the central city of Wuhan at the peak of last year’s coronavirus outbreak.

Key points:

  • Zhang says she believes she’s being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech
  • Her YouTube videos include interviews and footage of the Wuhan Institute of Virology
  • State media have credited success in reining in the virus to President Xi

One of her lawyers, Ren Quanniu, said it was on grounds of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

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.

“We will probably appeal,” Mr Ren said, adding the trial at a court in Pudong, a district of China’s business hub of Shanghai, ended with Zhang being sentenced to four years.

“Ms Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech,” he had said before the trial.

Two pro-democracy supporters protesting to urge for the release of journalist Zhang Zhan.

Police enforced tight security outside the court where the trial opened seven months after Zhang’s detention.(Reuters: Tyrone Siu)

A former lawyer, Zhang was arrested in May amid tough nationwide measures aimed at curbing the outbreak and heavy censorship to deflect criticism of the government’s initial response.

Zhang reportedly went on a prolonged hunger strike while in detention, prompting authorities to forcibly feed her, and is said to be in poor health.

Her short video clips uploaded to YouTube consist of interviews with residents, commentary and footage of a crematorium, train stations, hospitals and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Her lawyers told the court that police strapped her hands and force-fed her with a tube.

By December, she was suffering headaches, giddiness, stomach ache, low blood pressure and a throat infection.

Solidarity to ‘set her free’

Associate professor in Chinese studies from University of Technology Sydney Dr Feng Chongyi said he thought Zhang was “very brave” for broadcasting what was happening in Wuhan.

“Zhang Zhan and other citizen journalists [who reported from Wuhan] should be regarded as heroes and get rewards,” Dr Feng told the ABC.

“But rather than doing that, Chinese authorities now sentence Zhang Zhan for four years.

Dr Feng said Chinese authorities lied about the coronavirus when it first emerged “in order to save face” and Zhang’s sentence reflects that.

“China punishes anyone who challenges the state narrative by telling the truth,” he said.

“The international community should stand in solidarity with Zhang Zhan and force the Chinese Government to set her free.”

In Shanghai, police enforced tight security outside the court where the trial opened seven months after Zhang’s detention, although some supporters were undeterred.

A man in a wheelchair, who came from the central province of Henan to demonstrate support for Zhang as a fellow Christian, wrote her name on a poster before police arrived to escort him away.

Requests to the court to release Zhang on bail before the trial and livestream the trial went ignored, her lawyer said.

Foreign journalists were denied entry to the court “due to the epidemic”, court security officials said.

Other citizen journalists who had disappeared without explanation included Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua.

Criticism of China’s early handling of the crisis has been censored, and whistleblowers, such as doctors, have been warned.

State media has credited success in reining in the virus to the leadership of President Xi Jinping.

The virus has spread worldwide to infect more than 80 million people and kill over 1.76 million, paralysing air travel as nations threw up barriers against it that have disrupted industries and livelihoods.

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