United Nations calls on China to release hunger-striking Chinese citizen journalist

The U.N. on Friday called on the Chinese authorities to release jailed, ailing citizen journalist Zhang Zhan and allow her to receive life-saving medical treatment.

“We are very concerned about the rapidly deteriorating health of Zhang Zhan, whose life is reported to be at serious risk from a hunger strike she is currently conducting in protest against her conviction in December 2020 for documenting the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Chinese city of Wuhan,” Marta Hurtado, spokeswoman for the office of the high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement.

“We call on the Chinese authorities to consider Zhang’s immediate and unconditional release, at the very least, on humanitarian grounds, and to make urgent life-saving medical care available, respecting both her will and her dignity,” Hurtado said.

Zhang recently won a major press freedom award for her “notable contribution” to press freedom after she reported from the front line of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) honored Zhang — whose family say she is close to death in prison after months of refusing food in protest at her sentence — with its 2021 Prize for Courage for those who have “displayed courage in the practice, defense or promotion of journalism,” the group said in an announcement on its website on Thursday.

“Despite constant threats, this lawyer-turned-journalist covered the Covid-19 outbreak in the city of Wuhan in February 2020, live-streaming video reports on social media that showed the city’s streets and hospitals, and the families of the sick,” RSF said.

“Her reporting from the heart of the pandemic’s initial epicentre was one of the main sources of independent information about the health situation in Wuhan at the time.”

Fears that Zhang won’t survive continued incarceration have prompted international calls for her release in recent days.

Zhang Zhan Concern Group founder Wang Jianhong in Geneva for meetings with representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and other representatives (L) and Chinese dissidents and rights activists show support for Zhang (R). Credit: Wang Jianhong
Zhang Zhan Concern Group founder Wang Jianhong in Geneva for meetings with representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and other representatives (L) and Chinese dissidents and rights activists show support for Zhang (R). Credit: Wang Jianhong

Petition for release

Dozens of activists and rights groups, including the Coalition for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ) and Human Rights Watch, signed a petition on Friday calling for her immediate release.

“As [her] health worsens in prison, bringing her to the brink of death, the CFWIJ reiterates its demand for her release,” the petition said.

“Zhang … has been on a prolonged hunger strike to protest her detention and is being force-fed through a nasal tube,” it said, quoting Zhang’s family as saying that her life is now in danger.

Zhang, 38, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment by Shanghai’s Pudong District People’s Court on Dec. 28, 2020, and had been eating very little food in a bid to avoid being force-fed by tube.

Her family say she can’t walk or hold her head up unassisted, and currently weighs less than 40 kilograms, despite being 1.78 meters tall.

“For defying censorship and alerting the world to the reality of the nascent pandemic, the laureate in the ‘courage’ category is now in prison and her state of health is extremely worrying,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.

“The RSF Award laureates embody the noblest journalistic qualities and also pay the highest price because of this. They deserve not only our admiration but also our support,” he said.

Late Nobel peace laureate and veteran dissident Liu Xiaobo, who died in prison in 2017, received the press freedom defender award from RSF in 2004.

Zhang’s mother once again submitted an application for her daughter’s release on medical parole to the prison on Nov. 15, while Germany’s Tagesschau newspaper reported on Nov. 16 that the German government is lobbying hard for her immediate release.

Family under pressure

London-based rights activist Wang Jianhong, who heads the Zhang Zhan Concern Group, said Germany had played a role in the release of Beijing-based journalist Gao Yu several years ago.

“We are very excited to hear that the German ministry of foreign affairs has called on the Chinese government to release Zhang Zhan unconditionally,” Wang told RFA. “Germany is a country that attaches great importance to the freedom of the press, and to safeguarding human rights and freedom of speech.”

“We hope that the German government can make [further] requests with the Chinese foreign ministry, the Shanghai municipal government, and the Shanghai Prison Administration,” she said. “Somebody must be allowed to visit Zhang Zhan and give her a comprehensive medical examination for humanitarian reasons.”

When Zhang’s mother applied for medical parole, staff at the Shanghai Women’s Prison took them, and said they would be forwarded to the prison administration within 48 hours, Wang told RFA.

“The chances that Zhang Zhan will be released from prison alive are getting slimmer by the day,” Wang said. “But it became clear that her family was coming under pressure after Zhang’s brother spoke out on Twitter, and they have stopped updating their Twitter account.”

Rights lawyer Wang Yu said Zhang should be released on humanitarian grounds.

“Zhang Zhan should be released so that she can get the best medical treatment,” Wang Yu said. “The most important thing right now is to save her life.”

An employee who answered the phone at the Shanghai Prison Administration declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Wednesday.

“I don’t know much about the issue of medical parole,” the employee said.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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