At the beginning of the pandemic, the Communist Party filled the airwaves with positive headlines about how well it was mitigating the virus' spread. The Chinese government also went on a censoring spree, removing online content posted by journalists or citizen-journalist who reported firsthand accounts of the public health crisis unfolding in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of COVID-19. The government even went to the extent of detaining people who reported on the crisis, alleging they were spreading lies.
Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan is the first known person to be handed a four-year jail term for her reporting in Wuhan.
Zhan provided firsthand accounts of overcrowded hospitals and empty streets that challenged the government's official narrative.
She was convicted on Monday at the Shanghai Pudong New Area People's Court for "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," according to Reuters.
The verdict is a warning to all journalists in the country that the communist government is coming after those who exposed their shortcomings during the initial months of the virus outbreak. More importantly, Zhan's case shows the government has a zero-tolerance policy for critics.
"I don't understand. All she did was say a few true words, and for that she got four years," said Shao Wenxia, Zhan's mother, who attended the trial.
Zhan's lawyer Ren Quanniu was quoted by Reuters:
"We will probably appeal," adding that the trial at a court in Pudong, a district of the business hub of Shanghai, ended at 12.30 p.m.
Before the trial, he said, "Zhan believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech."
Kenneth Roth, the Geneva-based executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted that China intentionally planned for Zhan's trial to be held over the Western holiday to minimize attention.
"Beijing's selection of the sleepy period between Christmas and New Year's suggests even it is embarrassed to sentence citizen-journalist Zhang Zhan to four years in prison for having chronicled the uncensored version of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan," tweeted Roth.
Zhang is among a handful of journalists who covered the outbreak in Wuhan. Others like her have been detained and are awaiting sentencing or ordered by the government to stop reporting.
For its part, Jonathan Turley writes that the Chinese government has denied any failures in its policies towards COVID despite overwhelming evidence of a cover-up that denied the world critical time to contain and fight the spread of the virus.
Notably, the Chinese continue to scrub any discussion of its role in social media. It is a chilling example of the censorship that is now being embraced by many in the United States. The Atlantic published an article by Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith and University of Arizona law professor Andrew Keane Woods calling for Chinese style censorship of the internet. They declared that “in the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong” and “significant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet, and governments must play a large role in these practices to ensure that the internet is compatible with society norms and values.”
At the same time, Democrats have embraced censorship and speech controls. We have have been discussing how writers, editors, commentators, and academics have embraced rising calls for censorship and speech controls, including President-elect Joe Biden and his key advisers. The erosion of free speech has been radically accelerated by the Big Tech and social media companies. The level of censorship and viewpoint regulation has raised questions of a new type of state media where companies advance an ideological agenda with political allies.