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Chinese journalist arrested for reporting on Covid will be released after 4 years

A Chinese journalist who has been behind bars for four years for reporting on the initial Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan is expected to be released on Monday after serving her sentence, according to supporters and a court verdict.

Zhang Zhan a former lawyer, was among the few independent Chinese journalists who reported from Wuhan after the metropolis of 11 million people went into full lockdown, offering a rare, unfiltered glimpse into reality on the ground as Chinese authorities imposed censorship strict on media coverage.

She was detained in May 2020 and sentenced months later to four years in prison for “provoking fights and trouble” – a charge commonly used by the Chinese government to target dissidents and human rights activists.

Zhang is expected to finish his sentence this Monday (13), according to the court's verdict on his case obtained and published by human rights groups. Supporters and rights groups have called on the Chinese government to release Zhang by the deadline.

“So far I have not received any confirmation that Zhang Zhan is out of prison and is at home with his family. We are all still waiting,” said Jane Wang, a UK-based supporter of the Free Zhang Zhan campaign.

“I understand that her parents and brother have been under enormous pressure and have been sternly warned not to give media interviews. Calls from friends also go unanswered… these are extremely worrying signs,” she added.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which awarded Zhang its 2021 Press Freedom Award, called on “the international community to pressure authorities to secure her unconditional release on Monday,” in a post on the social platform , on Friday (10).

In early February 2020, just days after Wuhan went into lockdown, Zhang traveled about 400 miles from Shanghai to the city in central China to report on the spread of the virus and subsequent attempts to contain it, currently in which authorities increased censorship of Chinese state-owned companies and private media.

For more than three months, she documented fragments of life under lockdown in Wuhan and the harsh realities faced by its residents, from crowded hospitals to empty stores, as the world braced for the spread of the virus. She posted her observations, photos and videos on WeChat, Twitter and YouTube – the latter two of which are blocked in China.

“I can’t find anything to say because it’s all covered up. This is the problem this country faces now: any contrary opinions on our part can be (dismissed as) 'rumors,'” she said in a video two weeks after arriving in Wuhan, wearing a face mask.

“Even our own voices are beyond our control. They imprison us in the name of preventing pandemics and restrict our freedom… If we cannot obtain the truth, if we cannot break their monopoly on truth, the world will be meaningless to us.”

Her posts stopped abruptly in mid-May, and it was later revealed that she had been detained by police and taken back to Shanghai.

“Continued harassment and surveillance”

China's Foreign Ministry declined to confirm whether Zhang had been released from prison at a regular press conference on Monday afternoon (13).

“I don't have the relevant information, but what I can say is that China is a country governed by the rule of law. Anyone who violates the law must be punished by law,” said ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin. “At the same time, China fully protects the legal rights of defendants and prisoners in accordance with the law,” he added.

Long-time human rights advocates working in China say Zhang will likely live under strict surveillance from authorities even if he is released from prison.

“Although Zhang will be released from prison, it does not mean that she will be free. If the Chinese government's track record is any indication, it will face continued harassment and surveillance from authorities. But if Zhang Zhan’s past actions are any indication, she will continue to fight efforts to silence her,” said Yaqiu Wang, director of China research at advocacy group Freedom House.

Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International China director, said she was concerned that Zhang's ability to travel or establish contact with family and others, especially those outside China, could be severely restricted.

“Zhang Zhan should never have been arrested in the first place; Now, after serving her sentence, our hopes are with her and her family for a safe reunion and a path back to health and, if she so desires, to her important human rights work,” she said. “The Chinese government’s arrest of Zhang Zhan was a shameful attack on her human rights and her release should mark a new beginning.”

Poor health

Supporters and human rights groups are also concerned about Zhang's access to medical treatment after his release, given his poor health conditions while in prison.

The 40-year-old woman has gone on several hunger strikes since being detained and was briefly hospitalized. In 2021, Zhang's mother said that her daughter was so frail that she could not hold her head up due to lack of strength and was in desperate need of medical care.

During a previous hunger strike, Amnesty International alleged that Zhang was handcuffed and force-fed, treatment the group said amounted to torture.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to the CNN about allegations of mistreatment during Zhang's detention.

People wearing protective masks walk along a street in Wuhan, China

In a previous lengthy statement issued in July 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied that the Chinese government had cracked down on journalists who “exercised their right to freedom of expression on the internet” during the pandemic.

“In China, no one is punished or penalized simply for making comments,” the note said. “The Chinese government has always conducted its response to Covid-19 in an open and transparent manner and has achieved widely recognized achievements.”

Zhang was one of several independent reporters who were detained or disappeared during the start of the pandemic, as Chinese authorities cracked down on press coverage of the virus and propaganda outlets struggled to portray Beijing's response as effective and timely.

China is the world's biggest jailer of journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders, which ranks it 172nd out of 180 countries around the world in its annual Press Freedom Index.

Authorities strictly control the press in the country, while blocking most foreign media outlets through the Great Firewall, its vast online censorship and surveillance apparatus.

Source: CNN Brasil

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