Chinese journalist imprisoned for her ground-breaking coverage of the Wuhan COVID-19 pandemic is 'close to death,' reports say

By Alia Shoaib

A Chinese citizen journalist jailed for her reporting in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic is at risk of dying from a hunger strike, reports say.

Zhang Zhan, a 38-year-old former lawyer, was sentenced to four years in prison in December after she traveled to Wuhan in February 2020 to document what was happening on the ground.

She had posted on social media about government officials detaining independent reporters and harassing the families of COVID-19 patients.

She went missing in May 2020 and was found to have been detained by authorities in China.

In December, she was found guilty of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" under a broadly defined charge used to muzzle dissent.

The indictment sheet claims that she published "false information" on social media, the BBC said.

While being detained last June, Zhan started a hunger strike in protest and became so ill that she had to attend her trial in a wheelchair, Amnesty International said.

Her lawyer claimed that at times she was restrained and forcibly fed through a feeding tube, The Guardian reported. 

Last week her brother Zhang Ju wrote on Twitter that his sister, who is 5 foot 8 tall, now weighs around 88 pounds.

Her family told Amnesty that they do not expect her to live through the winter if she is not released on medical grounds.

She can no longer walk properly or raise her head without help, Reporters Without Borders said.

"Zhang Zhan, who should never have been jailed in the first place, now appears to be at grave risk of dying in prison. The Chinese authorities must release her immediately so that she can end her hunger strike and receive the appropriate medical treatment she desperately needs," said Gwen Lee, China Campaigner at Amnesty International.

"The Chinese government's prosecution of Zhang Zhan, simply because she tried to uncover what was happening in Wuhan amid huge government secrecy about the pandemic, is a shameful attack on human rights."

China is ranked 177th out of 180 in the 2021 RSF World Press Freedom Index, and is the world's largest captor of journalists with at least 122 detained.