Chinese journalist sentenced to four years in prison for criticising Wuhan administration over Covid-19 handling

China has jailed a journalist who covered the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan for four years.

Zhang Zhan, 37, was found guilty for ‘provoking trouble’ and was back in detained in May. She has been on hunger strike for several months and her lawyers say she is in poor health.

Ms Zhang is one of several citizen journalists who have run into trouble for reporting on Wuhan.

“Zhang Zhan looked devastated when the sentence was announced,” Ren Quanniu, who was one of her defence lawyers, told AFP.

Mr Ren added that Ms Zhang’s mother, who was in court, sobbed loudly as the verdict was read out.

Ms Zhang had travelled to Wuhan in February to independently report on the outbreak there. Her live streamed reports and essays were widely shared on social media, bringing her to the attention of the Chinese authorities.

According to NGO the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) Ms Zhang’s reports included coverage of the detention of other independent journalists and the harassment of families of victims who were seeking accountability.

In a video interview with an independent filmmaker before her arrest, Ms Zhang said she decided to visit Wuhan after reading an online post by a resident about life in the city during the outbreak.

Once there, she began documenting what she saw on the streets and hospitals in live streams, despite threats by authorities.

“Maybe I have a rebellious soul… I’m just documenting the truth. Why can’t I show the truth?” she said in the clip.

“I won’t stop what I’m doing because this country can’t go backwards.”

Ms Zhang went missing on 14 May and one day later it was revealed she had been detained by police in Shanghai, more than 640km away.

She was formally charged in early November. The indictment sheet alleges she sent “false information through text, video and other media through [platforms like] WeChat, Twitter and YouTube”.

She is also accused of accepting interviews with foreign media outlets and “maliciously spreading” information about the virus in Wuhan. A sentence of four to five years was recommended.

This is not the first time Zhang Zhan had a brush with the authorities. According to CHRD, she was detained in 2018 and 2019 for voicing support for activists in Hong Kong. She was detained for more than two months and was reportedly forced to undergo psychiatric assessments while under custody.