After alleged jail release, Chinese citizen journalist worries

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By Creative Media News

  • Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist, remains uncontactable after her scheduled release
  • Concerns rise over potential restrictions on her freedom and communication
  • International organizations fear surveillance and health deterioration post-release

There is increasing apprehension regarding the welfare of a highly regarded citizen journalist in China who has been unable to establish communication with the international community since her scheduled release from prison.

In May 2020, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, a lawyer who turned 40, was apprehended following her expedition to Wuhan to document the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her social media posts and videos brought to light the severe lockdowns being enforced and the government’s suppression of information regarding the disease’s transmission.

Zhang was found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” in December 2020 and subsequently received a four-year prison sentence. The conviction she faced significant criticism from human rights organizations was widespread.

Zhang was bestowed with the 2021 press freedom award for valour by Reporters Without Borders in recognition of “her courageous reporting from the epicentre of the pandemic,” which “became one of the primary sources of independent information regarding the health situation in Wuhan at the time.

Her release from the women’s prison in Shanghai, where she had been incarcerated, was scheduled for Monday. However, it is unknown whether or under what conditions she was released. In recent weeks, reports circulated that the authorities exerted significant pressure on her family and acquaintances to refrain from communicating with foreign media outlets or supporters overseas regarding her case.

Calls to the Shanghai women’s prison failed to connect on Tuesday and Wednesday.

An advocacy officer for Reporters Without Borders in Taiwan, Aleksandra Bielakowska, stated that since Monday, the organization has received “no information” regarding Zhang and that his family has had limited contact with activists in recent weeks. She stated, “We do not know whether they have been threatened, are under surveillance, or have been abducted.”

Concerns have been raised regarding the possibility that Zhang was granted restricted freedom, including limitations on her communications and mobility. Zhang may have been “taken away for vacation,” a euphemism used by the Chinese police to force a person considered troublesome to go on an escorted trip to maintain surveillance, according to one of her former attorneys who spoke to the Guardian. The attorney stated, “Everyone is paying attention and attempting to learn what’s happening, but there is no news.”

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Maya Wang, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, stated, “We have not received confirmation regarding Zhang Zhan’s release at this time, which is particularly concerning given her deteriorating health while incarcerated.

During her incarceration, Zhang allegedly underwent force-feeding and experienced weight loss of several stone as a result of her periodic hunger strikes. According to Amnesty International, she was committed to the hospital at one juncture as a result of profound malnutrition.

“We are concerned that, following her release, Zhang will continue to be subject to strict police surveillance and movement restrictions, as has been the case with far too many activists,” Wang stated. It is critical that the international community never forgets courageous activists such as Zhang and continues to demand her unrestricted release.

On Monday, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang Wenbin, reportedly declined to comment on Zhang’s case.

“The fact that there is silence is a message in and of itself,” stated Bielakowska.

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