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Coronavirus: China jails citizen journalist for reports from pandemic epicentre in Wuhan

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Pro-democracy activists hold placards with the picture of jailed Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan in Hong Kong, Monday, Dec. 28, 2020.
Pro-democracy activists hold placards with the picture of jailed Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan in Hong Kong, Monday, Dec. 28, 2020.   -   Copyright  Kin Cheung/Associated Press
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A Chinese citizen journalist who covered the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan was sentenced on Monday to four years in prison, according to her lawyer.

Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old former lawyer, was sentenced by a court in Shanghai for "inciting unrest" - a frequent charge laid against activists and critics of the Chinese regime - after a trial lasting a few hours, Ren Quanniu, one of her lawyers, told the press.

"She seemed very downcast when the judgment was announced," he told AFP.

The court accused Zhang of having disseminated false information on the Internet, her other lawyer, Zhang Keke, told AFP.

In articles that she posted online, she denounced the confinement imposed on Wuhan at the start of the pandemic, referring to it as "a serious violation of human rights".

There is no free media and press in China. It is common for authorities to clamp down on activists and whistleblowers being seen to undermine the government and the Chinese communist system.

A dozen foreign diplomats and supporters of Zhang tried, without success, to enter the Shanghai court where the trial was being held, but the police pushed them and journalists away.

The jailed journalist had been on hunger strike since June and was forcibly fed through a nasal tube, according to her lawyers.

According to her indictment, Zhang, who is originally from Shanghai, travelled to Wuhan, then plagued by coronavirus, in February, broadcasting widely shared reports on the situation in the city on social networks, including on the chaotic situation in the hospitals.

According to the official death toll, the metropolis of 11 million inhabitants accounted for nearly 4,000 deaths from COVID-19 alone, a large part of the 4,634 deaths recorded throughout China between January and May last year.

The national death toll has not changed since then.

China's initial response to the outbreak was criticised, with Beijing waiting until 23 January to quarantine Wuhan and its region, even though the first cases had been reported as early as December 2019.

But at the same time, doctors who had reported the appearance of a mysterious virus were questioned by the police, who accused them of "spreading rumours".

Zhang went missing in Wuhan in May before it emerged she was in custody over 600 km away in Shanghai. She was formally charged in November.

The court handed down a recommended sentence of four to five years in prison.

In addition to Zhang, three other citizen journalists, Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua, were also detained after covering the events. AFP has not been able to contact their lawyers.