Citizen journalist detained for reporting on China COVID outbreak, “may not survive”

Chinese journalist restrained and fed by tube

A Chinese citizen journalist who has been in government detention for nearly seven months after reporting on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is now on hunger strike and “may not survive,” her lawyer told CBS News.

Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old former lawyer who posted videos from Wuhan on the internet during the start of the coronavirus pandemic, was arrested in May and accused by the Chinese government of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a charge often brought against critics of the Chinese government and activists in China. Zhang has faced similar charges before after speaking out about protests in Hong Kong.

At the start of the outbreak, Zhang shared videos about what was happening in Wuhan, criticizing the government’s virus containment measures. Last month, she was formally indicted on charges of spreading false information about coronavirus in Wuhan. If convicted, she faces up to five years in prison.

“She’s unwell and refused to stop hunger strikes,” her lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, told CBS News, explaining that Zhang is restrained 24 hours a day with a belt around her waist and both hands tied to prevent her from pulling out a feeding tube.

Zhang’s lawyer, who visited her for the second time this Tuesday, says she’s experiencing headaches, dizziness and stomach and mouth pain due to the insertion of the gastric tube for forced feeding, and that Zhang told him that, “every day is torture.”

Zhang is among several citizen journalists whose work offered some of the only glimpses to the outside world of what was going on in Wuhan in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic — and who were subsequently detained by the Chinese government.

Citizen journalist Chen Qiushi went missing in February at about the same time as Li Zehua and Wuhan resident Fang Bin, both of whom also reported on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Li Zehua was released in April.

Zhang’s lawyer says there may be a hearing in Zhang’s case on December 29. CBS News spoke to him earlier this month about his client’s case. The below is a transcript of that conversation, which has been translated from Mandarin and lightly edited for flow.

Q: Why did you take up Zhang Zhan’s case?

A: Zhang Zhan was very courageous to come to Wuhan in early February to report on the coronavirus epidemic. What she did was not easy. The epidemic concerns everyone. I live and work in this city and have been through the tough times with all the others. Zhang Zhan’s family found me, and I was happy to defend her as her lawyer.

Q: Zhang Zhan disappeared one day after publishing a video criticizing the government’s coronavirus containment measures. What’s she saying in that video?

A: Zhang Zhan visited many places and talked to many people in Wuhan. She reported what she saw and expressed her takes on it.

She thinks what the government did was far from enough, and that the government is negligent. She thinks the fear people have towards the government is actually bigger than what they have towards the virus.

Zhang Zhan pointed out that the government’s control and monitoring of people was too much. People were stuck at home with shortages of food or lack of medical care, which would lead to much bigger humanitarian disasters.

Part of the reason why Zhang Zhan was in trouble was that she went to a police station looking for the missing Wuhan citizen Fang Bin, who filmed the bodies of coronavirus patients in hospital being transported.

Q: There are three allegations against Zhang Zhan. The first one is that she sent false information through texts, videos and other media platforms. Is this true?

A: As for whether what Zhang Zhan said was factual, everyone understands it from their own perspective. Everyone can express their opinions based on their own understanding. Because free speech should be protected, and reporting should also be protected.

What Zhang Zhan sees might be partial as she may not have all the information, but it doesn’t mean what she said was false. If a citizen has reasonable doubts towards government information, and does a report based on her/his own understanding of the situation, then the citizen should be protected. Government should be prudent and protective towards freedom of speech instead of accusing people of spreading rumors.

Q: The second allegation is that she accepted interviews from foreign media outlets. What do you think of that?

A: There’s no indication of difference in the law about accepting interviews from domestic media or foreign media. It’s only a matter of if the content is factual or false. In Zhang Zhan’s case, accepting interviews from foreign media is not a legal term. Is there a system beyond the law in our country to censor the citizens or pursue legal responsibilities? This sure will make people doubt the country’s legal system.

Q: The third allegation is that she is accused of maliciously spreading information about the virus.

A: Zhang Zhan didn’t maliciously spread the information about the virus. She was definitely not trying to harm the government. On the contrary, it was the government who tried to control people by deleting online posts and admonishing or arresting people who spread information about coronavirus cases. No one dared to speak out under that situation, but Zhang Zhan went to report on the frontline and against the government line. That’s why the authorities think she was trying to harm the government. While the government was trying to accuse or frame her, Zhang was just trying to protect the public’s right to know.

Q: What is Zhang Zhan’s current condition? She has been on hunger strike?

A: The last time I saw her was on November 23rd in a detention center in Pudong, Shanghai. She was feeling dizzy and exhausted.

She officially went on hunger strike at the end of June for three consecutive months. To punish her, as well as to keep her alive, the authorities restrained her with a waist belt and ankle chains and started to forcibly insert a feeding tube in her. She now has a constant stomach ache because of it.

Q: What is her goal with the hunger strike?

A: She thinks the arrest and criminal proceedings against her are unlawful, as well as the country’s legal system. A hunger strike is her way of protesting.

Q: What is next for Zhang Zhan?

A: The court plans to have a hearing soon and results are expected after.

Q: It seems as if many decisions have already been made. What do you feel about the impending outcome?

A: The sentencing opinion is four to five years, which we all thought was too long. Zhang Zhan is 37, very young. Even though she had participated in some civil actions before, the punishment is still too heavy. In accordance to the law, based on freedom of speech and the protection of human rights, a person shouldn’t be punished by law because of her speeches and reports, she should be innocent instead of facing such a long jail term.

Q: You said Zhang Zhan was brave to come to Wuhan. But yourself are also very courageous to take the case. What kind of pressure do you face?

A: Lawyers usually face talks with judicial and administrative departments when dealing with these kinds of cases. There’s pressure on the law firm. We also get threats about potential influence on our careers and even our family members get threats and harassment.

I have experienced it all. The worst was that I was told by a relevant department that if I continue to work on the case, my license will be revoked, and police were threatening to take my child away.

Q: Is the pressure and harassment worth the job?

A: Before I experienced all this, it was hard to imagine and accept. But as a lawyer, if my job to defend a client can be easily affected, then a lawyer’s dignity and value don’t exist. I do it out of my trust in and pursuit of the justice of the law. We all hope China’s laws can truly be enforced instead of only being terms on paper. The sacrifice and price will be worth it.

Q: Are you afraid?

A: Yes. I was once very scared. Even today, the fact that I’m here talking with you, I have many concerns. But I’m still willing to try and make an effort.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to say?

A: I hope more of the media and the public can get to know Zhang Zhan and the things she did and the articles she wrote.

CBS News’ Haley Ott contributed to this report.

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