UN urges release of China journalist jailed over COVID-19 reports

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The United Nations Friday urged China to release a citizen journalist jailed for her coverage of the country’s COVID-19 response and who is reportedly close to death after a hunger strike.

The UN rights office voiced alarm at reports that 38-year-old Zhang Zhan’s health was deteriorating rapidly and that her life was at serious risk from the hunger strike in detention.

“We call on the Chinese authorities to consider Zhang’s immediate and unconditional release, at the very least, on humanitarian grounds, and to make urgent life-saving medical care available, respecting both her will and her dignity,” spokeswoman Marta Hurtado said in a statement.

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Zhang, a former lawyer, travelled to Wuhan in February 2020 to report on the chaos at the pandemic’s epicenter, questioning the authorities’ handling of the outbreak in her smartphone videos.

She was detained in May 2020 and sentenced in December to four years in jail for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – a charge routinely used to suppress dissent.

She has conducted several hunger strikes to protest against her conviction, sentencing and imprisonment, and her family recently warned that she had become severely underweight and “may not live for much longer.”

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Hurtado said the UN rights office had repeatedly raised concerns over Zhang’s case with the Chinese authorities since her arrest last year.

It had sought “clarification on the criminal proceedings taken against her as a consequence of what appear to have been her legitimate journalistic activities,” she said.

China has reveled in its success in keeping domestic COVID-19 infections down to a trickle of sporadic outbreaks.

The government has put forward a narrative crediting the Communist Party with returning life almost to normal even as death tolls and infections continue to explode in the rest of the world.

But those who threaten the official version by raising questions about the government’s early handling of the Wuhan outbreak face the party’s wrath.

Zhang is among a group of four citizen journalists – along with Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua – detained after reporting from Wuhan.

Hurtado stressed that “the free flow of relevant information is of particular importance in the early stages of crisis situations such as public health emergencies.”

“We reiterate our call to all states to ensure that all emergency measures, including with regard to freedom of expression and media freedom, introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are strictly necessary, proportionate to their legitimate aim and non-discriminatory.”

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