Global civil society organisations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have sought the release of Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist who was jailed for reporting on China’s initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last week, her brother Zhang Ju said in a tweet that she is severely underweight and may not live for much longer, AFP reported.

“She may not survive the coming cold winter,” Zhang Ju wrote. “In her heart, it seems there is only God and her beliefs, with no care for anything else.”

Zhang Ju said that he has urged his sister through letters to take care of herself.

The journalist’s family added that she is now close to death after going on a hunger strike.

Gwen Lee, China campaigner at Amnesty International, said that Zhang Zhan should not have been jailed in the first place. “The Chinese authorities must release her immediately so that she can end her hunger strike and receive the appropriate medical treatment she desperately needs,” he said.

The Amnesty campaigner added that the Chinese government’s prosecution of the journalist was a “shameful attack on human rights”.

Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer-turned-activist, had travelled to Wuhan in February 2020. The 38-year-old’s live reports on the pandemic and the plight of residents in the central city were widely shared on social media platforms. Her reports had accused authorities of failing to inform residents of the reality of the situation, contrary to the rosy official narrative.

She was detained in May and sentenced in December to four years’ imprisonment for allegedly “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” during her reporting as the outbreak unfolded.

Human Rights Watch said on Thursday that the journalist’s mother, after a video call with her, said that she could not hold her head up due to the lack of strength. The organisation said that while Zhang Zhan is five feet ten inches tall, she now weighs less than 40 kilograms.

“The Chinese government needs to be held to account for allowing yet another peaceful critic to fall gravely ill while unjustly imprisoned,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should call for Zhang Zhan’s urgent release to prevent an already terrible situation from becoming a tragic one.”