Chinese citizen journalist arrested after reporting on coronavirus from Wuhan

A handout photo. Zhang Zhan was arrested for allegedly 'picking quarrels and provoking trouble', a catch-all charge often used to detain dissidents in China.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

A former lawyer and citizen journalist who reported on the coronavirus outbreak from central China has been formally arrested on public disturbance charges in Shanghai, her father has confirmed.

The family was notified on Friday of Zhang Zhan's arrest for allegedly "picking quarrels and provoking trouble", a catch-all charge often used by the authorities to detain dissidents in China. The arrest was approved by prosecutors in Shanghai's Pudong district.

Zhang, 37, was in police custody in the district, according to the official notice given to her parents.

"I'm very worried about her health and the detention conditions, and her mother is heartbroken," Zhang's 63-year-old father, who declined to give his name, said by phone.

"We don't have any connections or money to get her out - we're in an utterly powerless situation."

Shanghai resident Zhang had travelled to Wuhan - where the first cases of the new coronavirus were reported late last year - in early February. She live-streamed what she saw in the city on Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms. Both Twitter and YouTube are blocked in China.

Zhang also wrote an article that was critical of the authorities' response to the outbreak in Wuhan, saying the government had imposed measures that infringed on people's human rights.

She also questioned whether the authorities had covered up the severity of the outbreak and spoke out about censorship of the mainstream media.

But her father said he had been concerned about her decision to become a citizen journalist in China and was pessimistic about whether it could prompt change, saying it was like "crushing eggs against rocks".

Three other citizen journalists are known to have disappeared in Wuhan. Li Zehua, also known as Kcriss Li, re-emerged on social media in late April after he had been missing for nearly two months.

Li has since said that he was held at a quarantine centre in the city and then sent to an isolation facility in his hometown.

Chen Qiushi, a former human rights lawyer turned video journalist, travelled to Wuhan in late January to report on the worsening situation. His whereabouts remain unknown, along with another high-profile vlogger, Fang Bin.

A family friend told the South China Morning Post that Chen's mother had been unreachable since last month, but she was apparently free to contact and meet relatives.

Zhan Jiang, a retired professor of journalism and communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said citizen journalists did not have any legal protection in China and were seen by the authorities as "troublemakers".

"There is no official recognition and no law one could use to defend them," Zhan said. "They are also seen as social outcasts with nothing better to do in the eyes of the public - hardly anyone today will link these cases to issues such as free speech.

"It's a result of years of [government] propaganda and censorship," he added.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.