Lawyer turned citizen journalist goes to trial over Wuhan reporting


Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who has been in government detention for nearly seven months after reporting on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, will go to court on Monday. She is accused by the Chinese government of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.

Zhang, a 37-year-old former lawyer who posted videos from Wuhan on the internet during the start of the coronavirus pandemic, was arrested in May after several months of dispatches.

Her sudden disappearance in May was later clarified by the police that she had been arrested, accused of spreading lies. Her scheduled court appearance is the first known trial of a chronicler of China’s coronavirus crisis.

Zhang has now become a symbol of the government’s efforts to deny its early failings in the crisis and promote a victorious narrative instead.

Ms. Zhang has continued to challenge the authorities from jail. Soon after her arrest, she began a hunger strike, according to her lawyers.

She has become gaunt and drained but has refused to eat, the lawyers said, maintaining that her strike is her form of protest against her unjust detention.

“She said she refuses to participate in the trial. She says it’s an insult,” said Ren Quanniu, one of the lawyers, after visiting Ms. Zhang in mid-December in Shanghai, where she is being held.

Ms. Zhang’s prosecution is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s continuing campaign to recast the government’s handling of the outbreak as a succession of wise, triumphant moves.

Critics who have pointed to officials’ early missteps have been arrested, censored or threatened by police; three other citizen journalists disappeared from Wuhan before Ms. Zhang did, although none of the rest has been publicly charged.

Prosecutors accused Ms. Zhang of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” — a frequent charge against government critics — and recommended between four and five years in prison.

“She was shocked,” Mr. Ren said. “She didn’t think it would be that heavy.”

Ms. Zhang was one of a wave of journalists, professionals and amateurs who flocked to Wuhan after the lockdown was imposed in late January. Authorities were preoccupied with trying to manage the chaos of the outbreak, and for a brief period, China’s strict censorship regime loosened.

Reporters seized that window to share residents’ raw accounts of terror and fury.

Ms. Zhang had never been a citizen journalist before traveling to Wuhan from Shanghai, where she lived, said Li Dawei, a friend who exchanged messages with her often while she was reporting. But she was stubborn and idealistic, he said, to a point that was sometimes difficult to understand.

Ms. Zhang appeared to know the risks of her actions. In one of her first videos, on February 07, she mentioned that another citizen journalist, Chen Qiushi, had just disappeared, and another, Fang Bin, was under surveillance. Whistleblower doctors had been silenced, she added.

“But as someone who cares about the truth in this country, we have to say that if we just wallow in our sadness and don’t do something to change this reality, then our emotions are cheap,” Ms. Zhang said.

In mid-May, Ms. Zhang suddenly stopped responding, Mr. Li said. He later learned that she had been arrested and brought to Shanghai. The indictment, reviewed by The New York Times, accused Ms. Zhang of “making up lies and spreading false information”.

It also noted that she had given interviews to “foreign media” such as Radio Free Asia and The Epoch Times. (Source: Independent UK)