Chinese citizen journalist praised for ‘reporting the truth’ of Wuhan’s COVID-19 outbreak receives four-year jail sentence

A Chinese citizen journalist who reported from Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus pandemic began, has been sentenced Monday to four years in prison after “reporting the truth” about the outbreak, her lawyer confirmed.

Zhang Zhan was one of a number of citizen journalists whose eyewitness reports from when the virus first appeared about a year ago presented a more grim depiction of the early stage of the pandemic, such as jam-packed hospitals and empty streets, which contradicted the official narrative of the country’s authoritarian government.

Back in early February, Zhang traveled from her home city of Shanghai to Wuhan in order to document how the city was handling the virus outbreak in a series of posts online. Some of her posts were critical of the Chinese government’s response.

It was in May that Zhang was arrested, being accused of spreading false information, disrupting social order, giving interviews to foreign media, and criticizing the government.

China has censored criticism toward its handling of the coronavirus early on in the pandemic. Whistleblowers, especially doctors, have been told not to speak out.

The international community has been especially critical of China’s censoring of journalists and whistleblowers and the country’s handling of the early outbreaks which then spread across the entire globe.

Zhang was sentenced to jail Monday on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” her lawyer, Zhang Keke, who is not related to the 37-year-old, told NBC News on Monday. Zhang did not speak or display any reaction to the court’s ruling, her lawyer mentioned, also saying that, when she was asked if she wanted to appeal her sentence, she offered no answer.

Prior to the delivering of Zhang’s sentence, her lawyer said the citizen journalist went “on long-term hunger strike” in detention and was being force-fed, NBC News reports.

He said Zhang was “physically fragile,” and suffered from dizziness and headaches, per NBC News.

“When I met her days ago, her hands were tied to the waist and a nasogastric tube was inserted in her nose,” he said, emphasizing that his client has not pleaded guilty, according to NBC News.

“She has a strong will,” he added.

Also before the trial, which concluded at 12:30 pm local time, The Daily Mail reports her lawyer saying: ‘Ms. Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech.’

According to the The Mail‘s Monday report, a New York-based human rights organization had earlier told MailOnline that Zhang was being punished ‘for doing exactly what the world desperately needed: reporting on the coronavirus from Wuhan’.

Earlier this month, the human rights organization Amnesty International elevated the story of Zhang, raising concerns about the citizen journalist’s health and the “risk of further torture and other ill-treatment”.

On Monday morning, the United Nations Human Rights office tweeted that it was “deeply concerned by” Zhang’s four-year sentence, saying that her case is “an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to” COVID-19. The account added that it would continue to call for her release from prison.

The international community has largely accused China, a one-party communist state, of covering up the initial outbreak and delaying its response at the beginning of the outbreak, allowing the deadly virus to wreak havoc across the world. Despite there being more than 80 million COVID-19 cases worldwide, the country’s health officials claim they have only recorded 86,976 cases since the start of the pandemic.

During the early stages of the outbreak in China, government authorities went after many doctors in Wuhan after they tried to warn the public about the novel deadly virus. The most infamous case was that of Dr. Li Wenliang, who later reportedly succumbed to the coronavirus in early February.

RELATED: Chinese Doctor Who Blew The Whistle On Coronavirus Dies

Want more details of the story? Then read the full reports from NBC News here and The Daily Mail here.

You can follow Douglas Braff on Twitter @Douglas_P_Braff.