A Chinese woman was sentenced to six months in prison last year for posting on social media what the authorities deemed to be misleading information about the Covid-19 outbreak.
Zhang Wenfang, from Hebei province, was detained by police on April 4 after publishing information on the Twitter-like platform Weibo about people who had died or suffered during the health crisis, according to a court document made public by the Ministry of Public Security on Wednesday.
She was held for four months for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – a catch-all charge commonly used by China’s authorities to muzzle dissent – and later found guilty in court of “knowingly spreading false information and causing serious disruption to public order” for which she was sentenced to six months in prison. Allowing for time served she was released on October 6.
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Zhang is one of at least a dozen people known to have been prosecuted, detained or fined for not following China’s official narrative on the coronavirus outbreak. Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who was detained in May for reporting on the outbreak in Wuhan, was sentenced in December to four years in prison, while Cai Wei and Chen Mei, who archived censored news, were detained in April and are still awaiting trial.
Fang Shimin, a Chinese commentator based in the United States who goes by the name Fang Zhouzi, said Zhang Wenfang had been punished for speaking out, describing her case as a “literary inquisition”.
“The author of this post was sentenced to six months jail term for ‘picking quarrels and provoking troubles’, not because she started and spread rumours. But because most of the events she listed were facts and this hurt the officials that wanted high praises for containing the outbreak,” he said on Twitter on Wednesday.
Others criticised the ruling against Zhang on Weibo, pointing to the fact that the post that got her into trouble was made on April 4, which had been set as a day of remembrance for those lost to Covid-19.
According to the court document, Zhang, a resident of the town of Yanjiao in the northern province that neighbours Beijing, showed remorse for her actions and pleaded guilty, but her lawyer’s appeal for probation was rejected.
Zhang’s post referred to 46 events and the South China Morning Post was able to find corresponding news reports, videos, or images for 33 of them. The court document cites six items in the post as having been “clarified by authorities” or “false information”.
Her lawyer, Du Yaolong, declined to comment on the case.
None of the people listed in Zhang’s post were named, but the descriptions of their circumstances corresponded to news events. She wrote about a 70-year-old Wuhan man who took his own life by jumping off a building because he was unable to continue his dialysis treatment due to the lockdown, according to news website Guancha.cn.
The post also alluded to Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who was punished for warning his medical colleagues about an outbreak of what he thought at the time was Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in December 2019. He died of Covid-19 in early February 2020.
Zhang appears to have been singled out for prosecution. In June, Beijing police investigated 60 cases of “misinformation” relating to a Covid-19 outbreak at the city’s Xinfadi wholesale market. No one was charged, but 10 people were detained and the others were “reprimanded and educated”, according to a report by Xinhua.
A Weibo post by Sohu News about Zhang’s case garnered 1,200 comments before the function was disabled on Wednesday. Some people said the traumas suffered by the public were being erased in favour of what China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called a “correct collective memory” in the fight against Covid-19.
“[She] got in the way of the correct collective memory right?” one said.
“Even if there was some information that did not line up with the facts, they still came from other sources online. An average member of the public does not have the ability or responsibility to verify every single detail,” said another in a post that was liked 700 times.
“A citizen, with the good intention of remembrance, compiled online information and published them. For this, she was criminally prosecuted ... What a wonderful world.”
More from South China Morning Post:
- No appeal for China’s jailed coronavirus citizen journalist Zhang Zhan
- China jails citizen journalist Zhang Zhan for four years over Wuhan coronavirus reports
- Coronavirus: tributes pour in for Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who first warned of a deadly disease
- Covid-19 vaccines made by China’s Sinopharm, CanSino release efficacy data