Chinese journalist imprisoned for her Covid reporting due to be released after four years. But will she be free?

Hong Kong (CNN) — A Chinese citizen journalist who has been behind bars for four years over her reporting on the initial Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan is due to be released Monday after serving her sentence, according to supporters and a court verdict.

Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, was one of the few independent Chinese journalists reporting in Wuhan after the metropolis of 11 million people went into a complete lockdown, offering a rare, unfiltered glimpse into the reality on the ground as Chinese authorities imposed tight censorship on media coverage.

She was detained in May 2020 and sentenced months later to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – a charge commonly used by the Chinese government to target dissidents and human rights activists.

Zhang is due to finish her sentence on Monday, according to the court verdict on her case obtained and published by human rights groups.

Supporters and rights groups have called on the Chinese government to free Zhang on schedule.

“So far I have not received any confirmation that Zhang Zhan has left the prison and is home with her family. We are all still waiting,” said Jane Wang, a UK-based advocate for the Free Zhang Zhan campaign.

“I understand that her parents and brother have been under enormous pressure and warned severely not to give media interviews. Friends’ calls are also left without answers… these are extremely worrying signs,” she added.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which awarded Zhang its Press Freedom Award in 2021, called on “the international community to put pressure on the authorities to ensure her unconditional release on Monday,” in a post on social platform X Friday.

In early February 2020, just days after Wuhan went into lockdown, Zhang traveled some 400 miles from Shanghai to the central Chinese city to report on the spread of the virus and subsequent attempts to contain it, just as authorities tightened censorship on state-run and private Chinese media.

For more than three months, she documented snippets of life under lockdown in Wuhan and the harsh reality faced by its residents, from overflowing hospitals to empty shops, as the world braced for the spread of the virus. She posted her observations, photos and videos on WeChat, Twitter and YouTube – the latter two of which are blocked in China.

“I can’t find anything to say because everything is covered up. This is the problem this country is facing now: any opposing opinions from us might be (dismissed as) ‘rumors,’” she said in a video two weeks after arriving in Wuhan, donning a face mask.

“Even our own voices are out of our control. They imprison us in the name of pandemic prevention and restrict our freedom…If we cannot obtain the truth, if we cannot break their monopoly of the truth, the world will be meaningless to us.”

Her posts came to an abrupt stop in mid-May, and she was later revealed to have been detained by police and brought back to Shanghai.

‘Continued harassment and surveillance’

China’s Foreign Ministry declined to confirm whether Zhang had been released from prison at a regular news conference on Monday afternoon.

“I don’t know the relevant information, but what I can tell you is that China is a country governed by the rule of law. Anyone who violates the law should be punished by law,” said ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.

“At the same time, China fully protects the legal rights of defendants and prisoners in accordance with the law,” he added.

Human rights advocates who have long worked on China say Zhang is likely to live under close surveillance from authorities even if she does walk out of prison.

“While Zhang is released from prison, it won’t mean she will be free,” said Yaqiu Wang, research director for China at advocacy group Freedom House.

“If the Chinese government’s past record is of any indication, she will face continued harassment and surveillance by authorities. But if Zhang Zhan’s past actions are any indication, she will keep fighting against efforts to silence her.”

Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International’s China director, said she was concerned that Zhang’s ability to travel or to make contact with relatives and others, especially those outside China, may be severely restricted.

“Zhang Zhan should never have been jailed in the first place; now, having served her time, our hopes are with her and her family for a safe reunion and road back to health and, if she chooses, her important human rights work,” she said.

“The Chinese government’s jailing of Zhang Zhan has been a shameful assault on her human rights, and her release must mark a new beginning.”

Failing health

Supporters and rights groups are also concerned about Zhang’s access to medical treatment upon her release, given her poor health conditions while in prison.

The 40-year-old has been on multiple hunger strikes since being detained and was briefly hospitalized. In 2021, Zhang’s mother said her daughter was so frail that she could not hold her head up for lack of strength and was in desperate need of medical care.

During a previous hunger strike, Amnesty International alleged Zhang was shackled and force fed, treatment the group said amounted to torture.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not previously respond to CNN on allegations of Zhang’s mistreatment in detention.

In a lengthy statement issued in July 2020, the Foreign Ministry denied the Chinese government had cracked down on journalists who “exercised their right to freedom of speech on the Internet” during the pandemic.

“In China, no one gets punished or penalized simply because of making remarks,” the statement said. “The Chinese government has all along conducted its Covid-19 response in an open and transparent manner, and has made widely recognized achievements.”

Zhang was one of a number of independent reporters who were detained or disappeared during the outset of the pandemic, as Chinese authorities clamped down on coverage of the virus and propaganda outlets went into overdrive portraying Beijing’s response as effective and timely.

China is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders, which ranks it at 172 out of 180 countries around the world in its annual Press Freedom Index.

Authorities tightly control the press at home while blocking most foreign media outlets via the Great Firewall, its vast online censorship and surveillance apparatus.

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