Chinese journalist Zhang Zhan, arrested last year for reporting the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan, is seriously weakened as a result of the partial hunger strike she has been on to protest her detention.
The 37-year-old woman, 1.55 meters tall, who once weighed 74 kilograms, is now weighing less than 40, according to the New York Times. In late July, she had to be admitted to hospital, but on August 11 she returned to prison.
According to the NGO Amnesty International, Zhang’s lawyer said she is physically very weak and suffers from stomach pains, dizziness and weakness when walking. It was also reported to the human rights organization that the journalist was forced to wear handcuffs and that her hands were imprisoned 24 hours a day for more than three months as punishment for her hunger strike.
In prison, the journalist refuses to eat meat, rice and vegetables. According to her mother, Shao Wenxia, she only eats fruit and biscuits.
Zhang, 37, is from Shanghai but traveled to Wuhan in February 2020 to cover the Covid-19 outbreak. Independently, she recounted the experiences of city dwellers with the new and unknown virus, later dubbed Sars-CoV-2, and with the confinement imposed by local authorities. She also recorded, via social media, the detention of other independent reporters trying to cover the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan.
The journalist was arrested in May last year and, in December, was sentenced to four years in prison for “provoking disturbances,” a charge that is widely used in China to prosecute dissidents.
At the time of his trial, Zhang was already in poor health, having appeared in front of the judge in a wheelchair. One of the few things she said at the time, according to her lawyer, is that “citizens’ speech should not be censored.”
Other people who posted images of the plight of hospitals in the early days of the pandemic in China were also arrested or harassed by Chinese authorities, such as journalist Chen Qiushi and Wuhan resident Fang Bin.
“The crime of ‘calming disturbances’ under Article 293 of the Chinese Criminal Law is a loosely worded offense that has been widely used to target human rights activists and defenders,” Amnesty International said in a letter calling for Zhang’s release. “Although the crime was originally applied to acts that disrupted order in public places, the scope has been expanded since 2013 to also include the online space.”
Zheng’s mother has asked her daughter to stop going on hunger strike to regain her health, but despite the risk of death, the journalist seems to remain determined to continue her protest. In 2021, Zhang was only able to speak to his mother by telephone on two occasions.