The European Union has told the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to free citizen journalist Zhang Zhan. He was recently sentenced to a four-year prison term for exposing the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. Zhang is the first known reporter in China who has been punished by the communist regime for covering the pandemic. She was charged with the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” that is often used by the communist regime against dissidents.
“The restrictions on freedom of expression, on access to information, and intimidation and surveillance of journalists, as well as detentions, trials, and sentencing of human rights defenders, lawyers, and intellectuals in China, are growing and continue to be a source of great concern… According to credible sources, Ms. Zhang has been subject to torture and ill-treatment during her detention and her health condition has seriously deteriorated. It is crucial that she receives adequate medical assistance,” EU foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano said in a statement.
In addition to Zhang’s case, the EU expressed concern for human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, who was also recently sentenced to four years in prison. His lawyers were not allowed to present their defense statement, a guaranteed right under the country’s Criminal Procedure Law. The EU also asked for the release of the following human rights defenders who are in prison for exposing crimes of the CCP: Li Yuhan, Huang Qi, Ge Jueping, Qin Yongmin, Gao Zhisheng, Ilham Tohti, Tashi Wangchuk, Wu Gan, and Liu Feiyue.
Zhang came into national attention in early February when she revealed what was happening in Wuhan, the origin of the CCP virus. She was very critical of the communist government’s lax measures that failed to limit the outbreak. In May, Zhang disappeared. A month later, Chinese authorities confirmed that she had been arrested.
Her indictment mentioned that she was “distributing false information through text, video, and other media.” Before appearing at the court on Dec. 28, Zhang had been on a hunger strike for several months. She looked very skinny and weak; her lawyer admitted that he couldn’t recognize her. After Zhang’s four-year sentence was announced, her mother was distraught.
Barbel Kofler, the commissioner for human rights in Germany, asked Beijing to respect human rights of its citizens and said that the deteriorating health of Zhang was “deeply worrying.” UN Human Rights tweeted that they had raised Zhang’s case to Chinese authorities throughout 2020. The organization called for Zhang’s release and pointed to her arrest as an example of excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to COVID-19. Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) also criticized Zhang’s punishment.
“The sentence against Zhang Zhan for sharing information of public interest about the pandemic is unacceptable and a serious violation not only of her rights but also of people’s right to receive information from different sources about an issue that is greatly affecting their lives… As the world is struggling to assess the origins, dissemination patterns, and consequences of the COVID-19 virus, China is shirking its responsibilities and obligations by punishing those journalists who have contributed to disseminating valuable information,” IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded that Beijing release Zhang “immediately and unconditionally.” He accused the CCP of using all means necessary to silence people who question the Party. By censoring Zhang, Beijing turned a controllable outbreak into a deadly global pandemic. Pompeo said that lying is a core feature of authoritarian regimes and that Beijing’s fear of transparency and suppression of fundamental freedoms is a threat to the entire world.