A pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong holds a placard of missing citizen journalist Fang Bin, during a February 2020 protest.
Hong Kong CNN  — 

Fang Bin, a retailer turned citizen journalist who documented the early outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, has been released after more than three years’ detention in China, a family member told CNN.

Fang disappeared after sharing videos showing the on-the-ground situation in the central Chinese city, the epicenter of the original outbreak, as authorities sought to suppress information about the true extent of the unfolding global emergency.

He was released on Sunday and was in Wuhan, according to a family member who declined to be named due to concerns about repercussions.

Fang’s health had suffered while in detention, where he had trouble eating and sleeping, and he had lost weight, the person said.

His videos posted to social media in early 2020 laid bare the realities of the virus’ deadly spread, contradicting the official narrative presented on China’s tightly controlled state media.

Authorities locked down the city of Wuhan on January 23 of that year, but there had been a period of roughly three weeks between when health officials announced a mysterious illness and confirmed it was spreading between people.

In one video, Fang, a Wuhan resident who sold clothing, showed hospital corridors crowded with patients and their desperate relatives. During one segment, Fang counts body bags piled in a van – images that garnered significant attention in China, where the public was desperate to understand what was happening in the epicenter city.

In his final videos, Fang recorded people coming to his door to ask questions and said his home was surrounded by plainclothes policemen.

He appeared emotional in one recording, referencing the death from the virus of Covid whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang – who was reprimanded by police for sharing information about early patients – and the silencing of fellow citizen journalist Chen Qiushi, saying the reason he had not been taken away was due to his viewers’ attention.

“Let’s revolt – bring the power back to the people,” Fang can be heard saying in a February 9 video – a highly rare public expression of such sentiment in China.

Then, he disappeared.

The relative of Fang told CNN he had been charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and was sentenced to three years. The charge is commonly used to silence activists and government critics.

CNN was not able to independently confirm the details of Fang’s case, including whether he was formally charged or the circumstances of his release.

The Wuhan public security bureau did not answer repeated phone calls from CNN. The Ministry of Justice in Beijing did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.

China’s justice system is notoriously opaque, especially when it comes to those detained for political or social activism. Rights groups had repeatedly called for Fang’s release and information about his case and of others who were also detained after sharing information about Wuhan outbreak.

“Instead of being celebrated for his courageous efforts to expose what happened in Wuhan hospitals in those early days of the pandemic, Chinese government authorities simply made him disappear in an effort to silence those trying to share critical information,” Elaine Pearson, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch said in a statement to CNN.

“The opacity of his trial and secret detention are hallmarks of how the Chinese government deals with government critics with no due process,” she said, pointing to reports that Fang had been charged after his detention.

Crackdown on truth-tellers

Fang was among a handful of citizen journalists who were caught up China’s crackdown on truth telling in the early phase of the outbreak.

Others include Chen, the lawyer and citizen journalist who disappeared in early February and re-emerged in September 2021 when he briefly appeared in a friend’s YouTube video, and Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer. Both had reported on China’s initial Covid outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020.

Rights groups have repeatedly voiced concerns about the health and treatment of Zhang, who was detained in May 2020 and sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” She has been on multiple hunger strikes since being detained.

“While Fang Bin’s release is obviously positive for him and his family, he should never have been detained in the first place. And others who reported on the Covid-19 pandemic like former lawyer Zhang Zhan remain in prison despite the grave risk to her health,” HRW’s Pearson said.

Authorities have never confirmed how many people had been detained or prosecuted in connection with sharing information on the pandemic.

In a lengthy statement issued in July 2020, the Foreign Ministry denied the Chinese government had cracked down on journalists who “exercised their right to freedom of speech on the Internet” during the pandemic.

The government has attempted to frame its handling of the pandemic as a national success, first after it brought the initial outbreak in Wuhan under control in 2020 and again earlier this year when its top political body called China’s handling of the pandemic “a miracle in human history.”

China relaxed its stringent system of Covid controls – which included lockdowns, digital tracking and border restrictions – late last year, prompting a wave of infections that swept the country.

According to figures from the World Health Organization, around 120,000 people have died from Covid in China, though experts believe the true number is much higher.

CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed reporting.