HONG KONG—A Chinese court imposed a four-year prison term on a citizen journalist who documented how Covid-19 ravaged the city where the coronavirus was first detected, in a case that underscores the lengths to which Beijing has defended its official narrative of the pandemic.
Zhang Zhan, 37 years old, was convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after a roughly 2½-hour trial at the Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Court on Monday, where prosecutors accused her of spreading falsehoods about the coronavirus pandemic through social-media posts and interviews with overseas media, her lawyers said.
The verdict came more than seven months after authorities detained Ms. Zhang in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the pandemic’s original epicenter, where she posted more than 120 YouTube videos chronicling conditions in the city and detailed what she saw as missteps in the government’s initial pandemic response.
Her detention dovetails with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s campaign to recast the coronavirus pandemic in China as a showcase of the Communist Party’s good governance, featuring extensive propaganda and censorship efforts aimed at mollifying public anger and suppressing criticism against missteps in the government’s initial response.
The case against Ms. Zhang is the first known prosecution of a citizen journalist who covered the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan, where government efforts to punish whistleblowers and suppress information on the early outbreak stirred a public backlash and prompted some ordinary citizens to chronicle conditions in Wuhan with firsthand accounts over social media. At least three other citizen journalists in Wuhan disappeared in February and, though one of them briefly resurfaced in April, their fate remains unclear, rights activists say.
The charge against Ms. Zhang, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” is vaguely defined and has often been used to prosecute activists and dissidents. “Authorities are sending a warning to anyone who dares to cast the government in a bad light,” said Gwen Lee, a China campaigner at Amnesty International, a human-rights watchdog.
During Monday’s trial, Ms. Zhang said she regarded the proceedings against her as illegitimate and refused to answer the prosecution’s questions, according to one of her lawyers, Zhang Keke. She was brought to the courtroom on a wheelchair, likely due to her weakened state stemming from a hunger strike, said Mr. Zhang, who was present at the courtroom on Monday.
The lawyer, who isn’t related to the defendant, said the severity of Ms. Zhang’s punishment may be due in part to her past brushes with the law. Shanghai police issued her a warning in 2018 for allegedly seditious online activity, before detaining her on two occasions the following year for offenses related to picking quarrels and causing public disorder, according to a charge sheet reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The court didn’t ask Ms. Zhang whether she intended to appeal, nor did she express a preference before she was escorted out, Mr. Zhang said. Ms. Zhang couldn’t be reached for comment. Calls to press officials at the Pudong court and procuratorate rang unanswered.
A former lawyer and a Shanghai resident, Ms. Zhang traveled to Wuhan in early February, after authorities sealed off the city in late January to contain the coronavirus. In a video shared by rights activists after her detention, she said she decided to go there after seeing an online essay that described Wuhan as an “abandoned city.”
In a series of YouTube videos and tweets, Ms. Zhang documented scenes of daily life under mass quarantine in Wuhan, visiting medical facilities, walking through mostly deserted city streets, and speaking to local residents. Sometimes she offered her own commentary on conditions in the city, ranging from economic impact and government propaganda.
“The party flags and red symbols at many neighborhood entrances all indicate that epidemic-prevention isn’t important,” she wrote in a May 7 tweet featuring photos of what appeared to be checkpoints at entrances to Wuhan residential compounds. “Protecting regime stability that has been impacted by the pandemic is the actual goal.”
Prosecutors accused Ms. Zhang of using social-media platforms including Chinese messaging app WeChat, Twitter and YouTube to “spread large volumes of false information,” according to the charge sheet reviewed by the Journal. Twitter and YouTube are blocked in China. They also alleged that Ms. Zhang “maliciously hyped up” the pandemic situation in interviews with the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia and the Epoch Media Group, which has links to the Falun Gong spiritual movement that was founded in China and has clashed with the Communist Party.
Mr. Zhang, the lawyer, said prosecutors appeared to rush through their presentation of the case, declining to present specific examples of social-media posts that allegedly contained falsehoods.
Ms. Zhang’s social-media posts appeared to have drawn relatively little attention. The bulk of her YouTube videos have each garnered hundreds of views as of late December, though some racked up thousands of views. Her last video, posted just before her detention on May 14, was the most popular, with about 30,000 views as of late December, though Ms. Zhang’s lawyer said many of her videos gained viewership only after her detention.
“Ordinary Chinese people can’t see them. What impact could they have had? What exactly is the government afraid of?” said Mr. Zhang, the lawyer. “The government perhaps can’t tolerate the way she makes her criticism.”
Write to Chun Han Wong at [email protected]
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