EU Criticizes China for Jailing Citizen-Journalist Who Reported COVID

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -
A police officer tries to stop media as a lawyer (C) of Zhang Zhan arrives at a court in Shanghai, China Monday. (Kyodo News via AP)

The European Union on Tuesday criticized the jailing of a citizen-journalist in China who reported on the early outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic from Wuhan.

A Chinese court handed down a four-year jail term on Monday to Zhang Zhan, who reported at the peak of the crisis in the city where the coronavirus first emerged. Her lawyer said Zhang was jailed on the grounds of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

The EU called for Zhang’s immediate release, as well as for freedom for jailed human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, and several other detained and convicted human rights defenders and individuals who engaged in reporting in the public interest.

“According to credible sources, Ms. Zhang has been subject to torture and ill-treatment during her detention and her health condition has seriously deteriorated,” an external affairs spokesman for the 27-nation EU said in a statement.

The EU criticism over the affair comes a day before EU and Chinese leaders are expected to clinch a deal to give European companies better access to the Chinese market.

Zhang was among a handful of people whose firsthand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets painted a more dire picture of the pandemic epicenter than the official narrative.

Critics say that China deliberately arranged for Zhang’s trial to take place during the holiday season in the West, to minimize scrutiny.

“The restrictions on freedom of expression, on access to information, and intimidation and surveillance of journalists, as well as detentions, trials and sentencing of human rights defenders, lawyers and intellectuals in China, are growing and continue to be a source of great concern,” the EU spokesman said.