A court in Shanghai, China handed a four-year prison sentence to citizen journalist Zhang Zhan for her reporting of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan early this year.

The 37-year-old former lawyer was found guilty by the Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Court on Monday morning of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a broad and ambiguous offense which carries a maximum sentence of five years and is often used by police against dissidents, activists and journalists.

Zhang, who made reports of the Wuhan coronavirus situation through video and blogs, was charged of disseminating false information.

Zhang’s lawyer said she attended the trial in a wheelchair and was in poor health condition. Zhang did not immediately say if she would appeal against the sentence or not.

Police block journalists covering Zhang Zhan’s trial in Shanghai. (AFP)

The indictment sheet released last week said Zhang had sent “false information through text, video and other media through the internet media such as WeChat, Twitter and YouTube”.

“She also accepted interviews from overseas media Free Radio Asia and Epoch Times and maliciously speculated on Wuhan’s Covid-19 epidemic,” it said. A sentence of four to five years was recommended.

Zhang Zhan has been held in detention in Pudong since mid-May. In June, she started to refuse taking in food as protest against her arrest. She is now force fed with a tube and has been restrained 24 hours a day. Her lawyer visited on Christmas day and said that his client had lost 15 to 20 kilograms and had her hair cut short.

“She feels psychologically exhausted, like every day is a torment.”

Zhang had repeatedly denied the charges, and said her reports about the outbreak response were based on first-hand accounts from the locals. Her video reports were often critical of the secrecy and censorship of China’s handing of the coronavirus pandemic.

Zhang also bravely called out authorities for violating basic rights of people and demanded for the release of other citizen journalists who had been arrested for reporting from Wuhan.

Some of the citizen journalists arrested in China include Fang Bin, Chen Mei, Cai Wei and Chen Qiushi. Many others have been ordered to stop their online reporting.

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