(New York, NY) — Chinese authorities must immediately release citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who is reportedly “close to death” while on hunger strike in protest of her imprisonment for documenting and reporting the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, PEN America said today.

“Zhang Zhan’s grave medical condition is a direct result of the Chinese authorities’ relentless persecution of independent, journalistic voices,” said James Tager, PEN America’s director of research. “She should never have been detained or sentenced to prison for her reporting—Zhang documented life in Wuhan during the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic as a citizen journalist responding to a total lack of information. Tragically, her current medical condition distills the urgency and importance of free expression. We call on the Chinese authorities to immediately release Zhang Zhan and to vacate her prison sentence so that she can end her hunger strike and receive life-saving medical treatment.”

In February 2020, Shanghai resident Zhang Zhan traveled to Wuhan to report on the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. A former lawyer, Zhang turned to citizen journalism, documenting the experiences of Wuhan residents during the pandemic on YouTube and writing an article critical of the government’s COVID-19 management. On May 14, 2020, authorities detained her at the Pudong Detention Center in Shanghai. Pudong prosecutors formally arrested her for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” the following month, and in December, she was sentenced to four years in prison. Zhang has already undergone a hunger strike last year that severely threatened her health, leading to a hospital visit. Ahead of her trial in December, she had to appear in court in a wheelchair as her physical health worsened. Last week, her brother posted on Twitter that she weighs less than 90 pounds; other recent reports state that she cannot raise her arm without assistance. 

As noted in PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, China is the top jailer of writers and public intellectuals in the world, having jailed at least 81 writers during 2020. Journalists and media outlets face an acute level of intimidation, in addition to censorship and criminalization of their work from the authorities and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Zhang is one of several citizen journalists in China who have been detained for reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. On January 24, 2020 Chen Qiushi–a lawyer, activist, and citizen journalist–traveled to Wuhan to report on the coronavirus outbreak and disappeared weeks later. Chen and fellow formerly detained citizen journalist Li Zehua have since been released; the whereabouts of Fang Bin, a businessman turned citizen journalist, remain unknown since he was interrogated last year.