US urges Beijing to release jailed citizen journalist Zhang Zhan

·3-min read

The United States on Monday urged Beijing to release jailed citizen journalist Zhang Zhan and expressed concern over her well-being, amid fears by her family that her deteriorating health has left her perilously close to death.

Known for her on-the-ground reporting in the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in early 2020, Zhang is currently serving a four-year sentence for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a charge often used by Chinese authorities to punish critics.

After beginning an intermittent hunger strike soon after her detention in May, Zhang has severely lost weight and has reportedly been held in physical restraints and force-fed through a feeding tube.

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“The United States is deeply concerned about the deteriorating health of PRC citizen journalist Ms Zhang Zhan,” said US State Department spokesman Ned Price, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

A pro-democracy activist stands near the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region department as he holds up a signs in support of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan in Hong Kong in December last year. Photo: EPA-EFE
A pro-democracy activist stands near the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region department as he holds up a signs in support of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan in Hong Kong in December last year. Photo: EPA-EFE

Citing a number of recent media reports that Zhang was “near death”, Price told reporters that the US administration held “serious concerns about the arbitrary nature of her detention and her mistreatment during it”.

Zhang, a former lawyer, became the first of China’s “citizen journalists” to be tried in court for covering the Covid-19 outbreak in the central city of Wuhan, where the contagion was first detected at the end of 2019.

The 38-year-old used Twitter and YouTube to live-stream her reports about the local government’s pandemic response, and accused authorities of downplaying the seriousness of the outbreak.

Family seeks medical parole for jailed Covid-19 citizen journalist

In their case against her, Chinese authorities said her coverage was “maliciously fabricated”.

Zhang’s brother, Zhang Ju, recently told the South China Morning Post that a prison doctor had acknowledged that Zhang Zhan’s health was in peril.

Zhang Zhan’s weight had dropped to 40kg (88lbs), said her brother, who expressed fears that she “might not make it through this winter”. He said her lawyer is seeking medical parole, but that the chance of approval was “slim”.

“We reiterate our call to the PRC for her immediate and unconditional release, and for Beijing to respect a free press and the right of people to express themselves freely,” said Price, whose comments on Monday coincided with China’s national “Journalists’ Day”.

China regularly places among the handful of countries with the worst press freedoms in annual rankings by media watchdog groups. For the past two years, the country has topped the Committee to Protect Journalists’ index of nations with the most imprisoned journalists.

The government’s grip on media outlets and journalists tightened during the coronavirus pandemic, as it detained at least three other citizen journalists beside Zhang over their coverage of the pandemic.

Washington’s castigation of Beijing over Zhang’s case joins a chorus of global criticism, including calls from both the European Union and United Nations human rights office to release her.

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Last week, Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based journalism advocacy group, nominated Zhang for its 2021 press freedom prize for courage.

“Despite constant threats from the authorities, she live-streamed video reports on YouTube, WeChat and Twitter, showing the city’s streets and hospitals, and the harassment to which the families of the sick were subjected,” the group said.

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