The detained Chinese journalist Zhang Zhan has been nominated for a Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom award for courage, recognising her work reporting from Wuhan in the early weeks of the pandemic, as calls grow for her release.
The former lawyer turned citizen journalist was convicted in December of “picking quarrels and causing trouble”, a ubiquitous catch-all accusation frequently used against journalists, lawyers and dissidents in China.
Zhang was sentenced to four years in jail. She had already been in detention since her initial arrest in May 2020, and has been on hunger strike. Verlede week, her family said the 38-year-old was “close to death”, amplifying global calls for her immediate release.
In its nomination on Monday, RSF said Zhang had withstood “constant threats from the authorities” in order to livestream her video reports from Wuhan’s streets and hospitals and show the harassment to which families of Covid-19 patients were subjected.
“Widely shared on social media, her reporting was one of the main sources of independent information about the health situation in Wuhan at the time,” it said.
Zhang, who was among a number of journalists arrested in Wuhan but was the first convicted, was accused of having sent “false information through text, video and other media through the internet media such as WeChat, Twitter and YouTube”, and having “maliciously speculated” during interviews with foreign press, according to the indictment sheet.
RSF’s nomination noted claims made by Zhang’s lawyer in the days after her conviction that she had been shackled in her cell and force-fed.
“There is currently a great deal of concern that she could be subjected to further torture and ill-treatment,” said RSF.
Zhang is being held in Shanghai. Verlede week, her brother said on Twitter that she was severely underweight and “may not live for much longer”. He said Zhang, who is about 5ft 10in (177cm) tall, weighed only 6 stone 4lbs (40kg).
The RSF east Asia Bureau head, Cédric Alviani, said Zhang was a symbol of journalism in Sjina under growing government oppression and regulatory restriction.
“Zhang Zhan represents the hope of the Chinese people that some will keep doing journalism,” Alviani said. “That they go where something happens and keep reporting. The Chinese people, like every person on Earth, crave information on what’s happening around them.”
RSF was among a number of NGOs calling for Zhang’s immediate release. Alviani said the conviction should be dropped but that at the very least, given the immediate health concerns, she should be released on humanitarian grounds.
“The Chinese regime should never have judged her," hy het gesê. “She should be celebrated as a hero – she risked her life going to Wuhan at a moment when no one really knew what was going on.”
Zhang was nominated for the prize for courage, one of three press freedom prizes, alongside Kay Zon Nway, a Myanmar journalist who was jailed for 124 days after she was arrested in February while livestreaming an anti-coup protest; Patricia Devlin, who has faced personal threats while reporting on organised crime and paramilitary activities in Northern Ireland; and the Nicaraguan weekly newspaper Confidencial, which has been repeatedly raided and its journalists targeted by authorities under Daniel Ortega’s government.
“These men, women and media outlets fight with courage and determination against converging forces that undermine journalistic independence,” said the RSF secretary general, Christophe Deloire. “The RSF awards is a tribute and above all a support for all those who embody journalism’s ideals.”