The Chinese Communist Party has cracked down on and arrested citizen journalists reporting on the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan and how the government handled the outbreak, according to a report.
One of them, Zhang Zhan, 37, a former lawyer, recently posted a report on YouTube from outside a train station describing the conditions in the epicenter city, the Financial Times reported.
Wearing a face mask and talking into the camera on her cellphone, she noted how “human rights had suffered” as limits on movement persisted even after the lockdown was finally lifted.
A couple of days later, Zhang was detained by authorities at her parents’ home in Shanghai and charged with “provoking quarrels and making trouble,” according to a document seen by the news outlet.
Zhang had focused her reporting on the number of COVID-19 cases in Wuhan — expressing doubt on the official numbers and suggesting that the figure should be higher.
When the Financial Times spoke to her in mid-April, she was reporting on the economic conditions in Hubei province, saying small businesses were failing as unemployment appeared to be rising faster than officially acknowledged.
Zhang was among a bevy of activists, journalists, lawyers and social media personalities arrested after documenting the outbreak of the disease or questioning the Chinese Communist Party’s actions in controlling it.
They were rounded up ahead of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, the country’s most important political event of the year.
“The government has been trying to control the circulation of information and build a narrative that hides the wrongdoing of the government,” Doriane Lau, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty International, told the Financial Times.
“Curbing freedom of expression and press … only fuels frustration and blocks people’s access to information that can be crucial for fighting COVID-19,” Lau said.
Among those swept up in the crackdown was tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, who vanished in March after writing an essay critical of the Communist Party’s handling of the outbreak, the news outlet reported.
Citizen journalists Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin also were detained around that time.
“It’s not uncommon in recent months for people to get arrested, even for posting things that seem harmless,” Fu King-wa, a professor of media studies at Hong Kong University, told the outlet.
“The government is pushing very hard on their narrative about the outbreak internally — but also internationally,” he added.
The Chinese Communist Party has vigorously rejected the claim that China was responsible for the pandemic, which has claimed more than 350,000 lives across the globe.