The detention of Zhang Zhan, the Chinese journalist jailed after reporting on the Covid pandemic in Wuhan, is intended as a “warning to others”, her former lawyer has said, as calls grow for her emergency release on medical grounds.
Hundreds of Chinese human rights lawyers and citizens have put their names to an open letter calling for immediate medical care for Zhang, who her family fear is close to death. Zhang has been on a hunger strike for more than a year in protest at her persecution for reporting on the Wuhan lockdown in early 2020.
Her reports challenged official claims about the Wuhan lockdown and the outbreak, which authorities had attempted to cover-up. On Thursday she was awarded the Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 Press Freedom award for courage.
Zhang, a 38-year-old former lawyer, was sentenced in December last year to four years in jail on charges of disseminating false information in her video and blog reports from Wuhan and in interviews with foreign press. She was first arrested in May of that year, accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – an accusation commonly used against dissidents, activists and journalists.
Ren Quanniu, whose legal licence was revoked after he represented Zhang and members of the Hong Kong 12, said it was possible Zhang’s severe punishment was “retaliation” against citizen journalists trying to cover the Wuhan outbreak, aimed at sending a message to others given her initial arrest was so widely covered by international media.
“The virus issue is indeed very sensitive, including where it came from and what is the situation in Wuhan,” he said. “She went there to do some on-site interviews, and was in contact with Radio Free Asia and the Epoch Times for interviews. Both are viewed by Chinese officials as hostile media.”
Ren said the conviction was also the manifestation of China’s strict control over journalism, public opinion, and freedom of speech. “No matter if you are citizen journalists or independent media, things that are so-called ‘sensitive’ and do not conform to the calibre of propaganda are not allowed to be said. If you make these things public, you may encounter similar results like Zhang Zhan. This is a warning to others.”
While human rights observers, legal groups, and media organisations maintain she should never have been convicted in the first place, an international campaign is urgently calling for her release on any grounds possible, to save her life.
Family, friends and legal contacts have said they have tried to get Zhang to end the strike but she could not be convinced. Shortly before her sentencing, Zhang’s lawyer at the time, Zhang Keke, reported she was being restrained and force-fed via a tube.
Attempts by the family to petition authorities for emergency care appear to have stalled, with Covid restrictions stating the paperwork must wait 48 hours to be disinfected before it can be given to prison administrators.
An application by the family to the Shanghai Prison Administration Bureau said they understood the case was sensitive but doctors had said it was highly likely she could die without treatment and they were willing to cooperate with the demands of authorities to secure her release.
An open letter signed by at least 163 lawyers and citizens has urged authorities to release her into medical care.
“She is hanging by a thread, we are very worried,” said an English translation of the letter. “In order to prevent a tragedy, we think it is necessary to write a letter to you expressing our common wish: that is to conduct a comprehensive physical examination of Zhang Zhan and give her emergency treatment.”
The letter said Zhang was innocent and praised her work in the early months of the outbreak when little was known about the dangers of the virus and Chinese authorities were attempting to cover it up.
“When many people fled Wuhan in fear, Zhang went in alone. This kind of courage is rare,” it said. “[This] is behaviour a modern government should encourage. It not only contributes to disaster relief, but creates an atmosphere of mutual assistance and friendship … It is unjust to use criminal means to punish Zhang Zhan’s actions, which were not only harmless but helpful.”
Last week the US state department criticised the “arbitrary” detention, and called for her immediate and unconditional release.