A former lawyer, Zhang Zhan, traveled to the central Chinese city in February to report on the pandemic and subsequent attempts to contain it, just as authorities began arranging in state-run and private Chinese media.
She disappeared from Wuhan in May and it was later revealed that she had been detained by the police in Shanghai, a city more than 640 kilometers away, and charged with ‘quarreling and causing problems’, a violation commonly used by journalists and human rights activists.
Zhang is the first civilian journalist known to have been convicted for her role in reporting on the coronavirus pandemic.
Zhang is one of a number of independent reporters who have been detained or disappeared since the beginning of the pandemic in China, as the authorities curtailed coverage of the virus and transmitted propaganda outlets to portray Beijing’s response effectively and in a timely manner.
In February, Chen Qiushi, who had live videos of Wuhan during the city closure and posted reports on social media, disappeared. In September he is apparently under ‘state supervision’. Two other independent journalists – Li Zehua and Fang Bin – were also detained after their coverage of the Wuhan outbreak.
“Under the guise of fighting the new coronavirus, Chinese authorities have increased repression online by blocking independent reporting, information exchange and critical comments on the government’s responses,” said Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a group in Hong Kong. said earlier in a report. this year.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), China is the largest jailer of journalists in the world and controls the press at home, while most foreign media are blocked via the Great Firewall, its major censorship and surveillance device.
In March, China suspended journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal in an unprecedented move against the foreign press. Beijing said the move – amid a spate of critical coverage of China’s initial response to the coronavirus – was a response to recent restrictions by Washington on the operation of Chinese state media in the US.
While sporadic outbreaks appear and are quickly suppressed with blockades and quarantines, China has largely controlled the virus, enabling the country to return to relative normalcy.
However, press restrictions did not lift, and Chinese state media began aggressively pushing for an alternative story for the pandemic, with allegations that the coronavirus may have spread outside the country before the initial outbreak in Wuhan.