The UN and rights groups have urged Beijing to release Zhang Zhan, who has been jailed for her coverage of China’s COVID-19 response.
China has sharply criticized the United Nations for comments demanding the release of a citizen journalist jailed for her coverage of the country’s response to COVID-19.
China’s mission in Geneva expressed outrage on Saturday at what it called “irresponsible” and “erroneous” remarks made Friday by the UN human rights office, OHCHR, in the case of Zhang Zhang.
OHCHR spokeswoman Marta Hurtado expressed alarm on Friday at reports that the 38-year-old’s health was rapidly deteriorating and that her life was at serious risk from the hunger strike in detention.
“We call on the Chinese authorities to consider the immediate and unconditional release of Zhang, at the very least on humanitarian grounds, and to provide urgent life-saving medical care, while respecting both his will and his dignity.” , Hurtado said in a statement.
Zhang, a former lawyer, traveled to Wuhan in February 2020 to report on the chaos at the epicenter of the pandemic, questioning authorities’ handling of the outbreak in her smartphone videos.
She was arrested in May 2020 and sentenced in December to four years in prison for “stirring up quarrels and causing trouble” – a charge commonly used to suppress dissent.
She went on several hunger strikes to protest her conviction, sentencing and imprisonment, and her family recently warned that she was severely underweight and “may not live long”.
Hurtado said the UN human rights office had repeatedly raised concerns about Zhang’s case with Chinese authorities since his arrest last year.
She had requested “clarification of the criminal charges brought against her due to what appears to have been her legitimate journalistic activities”, she said.
China has reveled in its success in limiting national COVID-19 infections to a trickle of sporadic outbreaks.
But there has been little patience with those who threaten the official story by raising questions about the government’s early handling of the Wuhan outbreak.
Zhang is among a group of four citizen journalists – along with Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua – detained after reporting from Wuhan.
In Saturday’s statement, Chinese mission spokesperson Liu Yuyin insisted that “China is a country governed by the rule of law, and everyone is equal before the law.”
He lamented that the human rights office in charge of Zhang’s case had “turned a blind eye to information provided by China through normal channels” and, instead, “based on hearsay , has chosen to interfere in China’s judicial sovereignty”.
He also highlighted China’s response to COVID-19, insisting that what the country “has achieved in the fight against the pandemic is there for all to see.”
It “is not something anyone can distort or undo, much less something the OHCHR can influence.”
Zhang received the 2021 Press Freedom Prize from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Thursday for his courage.
“His reporting from the heart of the initial epicenter of the pandemic was one of the main sources of independent information on the health situation in Wuhan at the time,” RSF said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of human rights lawyers have put their names on an open letter calling for his immediate release due to his fragile health. At least 40 human rights organizations have urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to release Zhang “before it’s too late”.