US calls on China to release Wuhan journalist who investigated Covid response

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Former Chinese lawyer and citizen journalist Zhang Zhan broadcasts via YouTube on December 28, 2020 (YOUTUBE/AFP via Getty Images)
Former Chinese lawyer and citizen journalist Zhang Zhan broadcasts via YouTube on December 28, 2020 (YOUTUBE/AFP via Getty Images)

The US government expressed its concerns about the deteriorating health condition of detained Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan and urged Beijing to release her.

Ms Zhang was sentenced to four years in prison for her on-ground reporting on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

“We have repeatedly expressed our serious concerns about the arbitrary nature of her detention and her mistreatment during it. We reiterate our call to the PRC [ People’s Republic of China] for her immediate and unconditional release,” US state department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Monday.

She has been on an intermittent hunger strike since her detention in May 2020. Ms Zhang has lost weight and is reportedly being force-fed through a feeding tube.

Citing reports of her health condition, Mr Price said that the US administration has “serious concerns about the arbitrary nature of her detention and her mistreatment during it”.

“We reiterate our call to the PRC for her immediate and unconditional release,” he added.

The 38-year-old former lawyer had travelled to Wuhan in February 2020 when initial cases of the coronavirus disease were being reported. She documented and live-streamed what she saw on the streets and hospitals of Wuhan — the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak — despite threats from Chinese authorities.

In her coverage, she posted Covid-19 related stories on her social media accounts, which included the detention of other independent journalists and harassment of victims’ families who sought accountability from the government over the outbreak.

She was found guilty in December of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Chinese authorities claimed that her coverage was “maliciously fabricated.”

Last week, her family said she “may not survive” due to being severely underweight. Her brother Zhang Ju wrote on Twitter: “Zhan is 177cm tall, now she has less than 40kg wt [weight]. She may not survive the coming cold winter. I hope the world remember how she used to be.”

Mr Zhang’s social media post led to fresh outrage and demands for his sister’s release.

Rights group Amnesty International in a statement released on 4 November urged the Chinese government to “release her immediately so that she can end her hunger strike and receive the appropriate medical treatment she desperately needs.”

The organisation said she is at a “risk of dying in prison” if not “urgently released” for treatment.

Meanwhile, journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) nominated Ms Zhang for its 2021 press freedom prize for courage.

In September, a joint letter by RSF and a coalition of 44 human rights NGOs urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to release Ms Zhang.

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