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Human Rights

China jails journalist for COVID-19 reporting ahead of international virus probe

Caravanserai and AFP

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Police attempt to stop journalists from recording footage outside the Shanghai Pudong New District People's Court, where Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan -- who reported on Wuhan's COVID-19 outbreak and was placed under detention in May -- was sentenced to four years in prison on December 28. [Leo Ramirez/AFP]

A Chinese journalist was jailed for four years Monday (December 28) for her reporting about the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in China just weeks before a World Health Organization (WHO) probe is set to start investigating the origins of the virus.

Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, was sentenced at a brief hearing in a Shanghai court for allegedly "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" during her reporting in the chaotic initial stages of the outbreak.

Her live reports and essays were shared on social media platforms in February, grabbing the attention of authorities, who have punished eight virus whistleblowers so far as they defang criticism of the government's response to the outbreak.

Beijing has congratulated itself for "extraordinary" success in controlling the virus inside its borders, with an economy on the rebound while much of the rest of the world stutters through painful lockdowns and surging caseloads a year on from the start of the pandemic in Wuhan.

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While the rest of the world is suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic that originated in China, Beijing has been aggressive in its attempts to portray itself as having moved passed the crisis. This photo taken on December 24 shows visitors admiring ice sculptures ahead of the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival in northeastern China. [STR/AFP]

Controlling the information flow during an unprecedented global health crisis has been pivotal in allowing China's communist authorities to reframe the narrative in their favour, with President Xi Jinping being garlanded for his leadership by the country's ruling party.

But that has come at a serious cost to anyone who has picked holes in the official storyline.

The court said Zhang Zhan had spread "false remarks" online, according to one of her lawyers Zhang Keke, but the prosecution did not fully divulge its evidence in court.

"We had no way of understanding what exactly Zhang Zhan was accused of doing," he added, describing it as "a speedy, rushed hearing."

In return the defendant "didn't respond [to questions]... She refused to answer when the judge asked her to confirm her identity."

The defendant's mother sobbed loudly as the verdict was read out, Ren Quanniu, another member of Zhang's defence team, told reporters who were barred from entering the court.

Concerns are mounting over the health of 37-year-old Zhang, who began a hunger strike in June and has been force-fed via a nasal tube.

Her legal team said her health was in decline and she suffered from headaches, dizziness and stomach pain, and that she had appeared in court in a wheelchair.

"She said when I visited her (last week): 'If they give me a heavy sentence then I will refuse food until the very end.'... She thinks she will die in prison," Ren said before the trial.

"It's an extreme method of protesting against this society and this environment."

China's communist authorities have a history of putting dissidents on trial in opaque courts between Christmas and New Year in an effort to minimise Western scrutiny.

Making examples

The sentencing comes just weeks before an international team of World Health Organization experts is expected to arrive in China to investigate the origins of Covid-19.

Zhang was critical of the early response in Wuhan, writing in a February essay that the government "didn't give people enough information, then simply locked down the city".

"This is a great violation of human rights," she wrote.

Rights groups and embassies have also drawn attention to her case, although diplomats from several countries were denied requests to monitor the hearing.

"Zhang Zhan's case raises serious concerns about media freedom in China," the British embassy in Beijing said, urging "China to release all those detained for their reporting."

Authorities "want to use her case as an example to scare off other dissidents from raising questions about the pandemic situation in Wuhan earlier this year", added Leo Lan, research and advocacy consultant at the Chinese Human Rights Defenders NGO.

Zhang is the first of a group of four citizen journalists detained by authorities after reporting from Wuhan to face trial.

Previous attempts by AFP to contact the other three -- Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua -- were unsuccessful.

Casting doubt on the truth

Beijing since the outbreak has been attempting to cast doubts on the origins of the virus.

The state-run People's Daily newspaper, for instance, said in a Facebook post in early November that "all available evidence suggests that the coronavirus did not start in central China's Wuhan".

Also in November, Beijing was quick to spin a study in an Italian medical journal posited that the COVID-19 coronavirus was circulating in Italy as early as September 2019, eliminating key details of the research conclusions and using sketchy science to reinforce doubts over the origins of the outbreak.

The reality is all evidence points to Wuhan, China, as the epicenter of the global crisis.

In early 2020, Chinese authorities, knowing a deadly outbreak was afoot, said nothing for almost a week, allowing the virus to take hold in Wuhan and spread across the world, while deliberately suppressing or destroying evidence of the outbreak.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Beijing has been actively attempting to deflect criticism of its role in the coronavirus pandemic by promoting conspiracy theories and has been caught flooding the news and social media with blatant disinformation about the virus.

As part of those efforts, the Chinese regime has been actively pushing the narrative of its "heroic deeds" in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic despite its role in spreading the pandemic and covering up its role in the crisis.

The National Museum of China in August opened up an exhibit, "Unity of Strength", which showcased paintings, sculptures and calligraphy that depict what the regime says is its success in responding to the crisis.

Chinese state media also have been intent on showing the world that the country has moved on from the coronavirus pandemic, but countries continuing to suffer under strict lockdowns due to COVID-19 -- which originated and spread in China -- are looking on at this media campaign in exasperation.

China has also tried to enhance its soft power push during the pandemic -- promising to share its vaccines with developing countries, and engaging in "vaccine diplomacy".

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