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Chinese citizen journalist sentenced to 4 years for COVID reporting

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A Chinese court on Monday sentenced a citizen journalist who documented the early days of the coronavirus outbreak to four years in prison, sending a stark warning to those challenging the government’s official narrative of the pandemic.

Zhang Zhan, 37, the citizen journalist, was the first known person to face trial for chronicling China’s outbreak. Zhang, a former lawyer, had travelled to Wuhan from her home in Shanghai in February, at the height of China’s outbreak, to see the toll from the virus in the city where it first emerged. For several months she shared videos that showed crowded hospitals and residents worrying about their incomes.

In China, the news media is tightly controlled by the state. Some citizen journalists try to offer more independent reporting, which they post on the internet and social media platforms. But their work is often censored and they are routinely punished.

Zhang was fiercely critical of the government in her dispatches, asking why it had tried to silence whistleblowers about the virus and questioning whether Wuhan’s lockdown had been enacted too harshly. She also directly challenged propaganda exalting the government response. The Chinese government has tried to quash criticisms that it initially tried to conceal the virus. It has arrested other citizen journalists, threatened grieving family members and censored social media.

“The government’s way of managing this city has just been intimidation and threats,” she said in one of her videos. “This is truly the tragedy of this country.” That turned out to be her last video. In May, Zhang abruptly stopped responding to messages. Her friends later learned that she had been arrested and brought back to Shanghai, accused of spreading lies and making up false information.

In protest of her arrest and indictment, Zhang had begun a prolonged hunger strike, her lawyers said. In response, authorities force-fed her through a feeding tube and restrained her hands so she could not pull it out. The official charge on which she was convicted was “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a vague charge commonly used against critics of the government.

Zhang appeared for the trial in a wheelchair, one of her lawyers, Zhang Ke Ke, wrote Monday on WeChat, a messaging app. He had written in a post a few days earlier that she had lost a significant amount of weight and was almost unrecognizable from even just a few weeks before.

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