Who is Zhang Zhan? Chinese journalist imprisoned for her Covid reporting set to be released after four years

Zhang Zhan's family members and supporters were inaccessible, according to human rights campaigners who had been following her situation.

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After serving a four-year term, Zhang Zhan—who is believed to be the first person in China to be imprisoned for recording the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic—was scheduled to be released on Monday. But on Monday night, it was unclear whether Ms. Zhang, 40, had been freed or not—a sign of how keen the Chinese government is to keep the public quiet about the outbreak. Zhang Keke, the attorney who defended Ms. Zhang during her trial (the two are unrelated), claimed he was unable to get in touch with her mother during the day. When contacted via phone, Shanghai prison administration representatives refused to comment.

The Chinese wisper that caused the trouble 

She was arrested in May 2020 and given a four-year prison sentence months later for "picking quarrels and creating trouble," a charge that the Chinese government frequently uses to pursue dissidents and human rights campaigners.  According to the court decision in Zhang's case that human rights organizations were able to obtain and publish, Zhang is scheduled to serve out her sentence on Monday.  The Chinese government has been urged by supporters and human rights organizations to release Zhang on time.

Zhang's fate 

Zhang flew about 400 miles from Shanghai to Wuhan in early February 2020, a few days after the city was placed under lockdown, to report on the virus's progress and the efforts made to contain it. At the same time, authorities strengthened their control over state-run and private Chinese media.As the globe prepared for the virus's spread, she spent more than three months documenting glimpses of Wuhan's life under lockdown and the grim realities that its citizens had to deal with, including overcrowded hospitals and shuttered stores. Her observations, images, and videos were shared on WeChat, Twitter, and YouTube—the last two of which are inaccessible in China.

More on the case

"Since everything is hidden, I am at a loss for words. "Any opposing thoughts from us might be (dismissed as) 'rumors,'" she remarked in a video two weeks after landing in Wuhan while wearing a face mask. This is the issue this country is currently experiencing.
She spent more than three months recording glimpses of Wuhan's life under lockdown and the harsh realities that its residents had to deal with, such as congested hospitals and closed supermarkets, as the world braced itself for the virus's spread. She posted her thoughts, pictures, and videos on WeChat, Twitter, and YouTube—the latter two of which are blocked in China. "I have nothing to say because it is all hidden."Two weeks after arriving in Wuhan, she said in a video, "Any opposing opinions from us might be (dismissed as) 'rumors,'" all while sporting a face mask. This is the problem that this nation is facing right now.

China robs Zhang for honesty

Even if Zhang is successful in getting out of jail, human rights activists with extensive experience in China predict that she will live under constant government observation. "Zhang will not be free even after her release from prison," warned Yaqiu Wang, the research director for China at the advocacy organization Freedom House. "If the Chinese government's previous actions are any guide, she will continue to be harassed and watched by the authorities. However, Zhang Zhan will continue to resist attempts to muzzle her if her previous behavior is any guide.

Authorities on the conundrum 

At the beginning of the pandemic, when Chinese authorities cracked down on coverage of the virus and propaganda outlets went into overdrive portraying Beijing's reaction as prompt and successful, Zhang was one of several independent reporters who were arrested or vanished. According to Reporters Without Borders, which places China 172 out of 180 nations in its annual Press Freedom Index, it is the nation that imprisons journalists the most worldwide.