On a chilly evening in February last year, Chen Qiushi set out to take his camera inside another overwhelmed hospital to expose the worsening coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
His viral videos of bodies and sick patients in corridors, and shortages of critical equipment on the frontline gave the world a glimpse into just how bad things really were.
But the Chinese authorities, already accused of a cover up, were angered by his independent, uncensored reporting, and brave whistleblowers and citizen journalists like Mr Chen, 35, were vanishing or being detained to silence them.
After receiving threatening phone calls, his fears that he could suffer the same fate were realised.
He hasn’t been heard from since he told friends he was on his way to record video at a makeshift Covid-19 hospital.
He is said to be under surveillance and confined to his parents’ home, but friends fear he has come to harm and they will never see him again.
He was reported to be under “strict supervision” while in his parents’ care in Qingdao, 600 miles away from Wuhan, as recently as late March, as friends struggle to find out what happened to him.
One of his close friends, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Mirror: “We don’t know anything about him. He just disappeared.
“In one of his videos before he disappeared, he said he received some calls.
“They (the authorities) asked him to stop making videos as a citizen journalist.
“He specifically asked me to change the passwords of his accounts once he was out of contact for more than 12 hours.
“He knew it could happen at any time and it did.”
The friend has since taken over Mr Chen’s Twitter account, which has almost 340,000 followers.
Mr Chen and other citizen journalists have been hailed for rising their lives and freedom during the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan, as they were the primary source of uncensored information.
As hospitals filled up, the government tried to silence those speaking out to conceal the severity of the virus and the extent of its spread.
In one of his final videos, Mr Chen appeared shaken as explained how he had received phone calls from officials, including a public security bureau, which is essentially a police station.
The friend, like others, last had contact with the human rights lawyer and activist on the evening of February 6, 2020, when the citizen journalist said he was going to Wuhan’s pop-up Fangcang Hospital, a converted exhibition centre, to record video.
“Since then, nobody that I know has heard from or saw him,” the friend said.
There have been rumours about the disappearance, but the exact circumstances of how Mr Chen was detained are not known.
His final text message to his friend was sent just after 5pm.
The friend said: “I asked about his health. He said he was ok. It seemed normal.”
By 2am the friend began to fear something had happened to Mr Chen.
He said: “Many were saying they could not reach him. When it passed 24 hours, I knew something was terribly wrong.”
Later that day, a video was shared on Mr Chen’s Twitter account featuring his mum, who said he had gone missing as she appealed for information.
It was thought her son had been “forcibly quarantined”.
It wasn’t Mr Chen’s first brush with the authorities.
He was harassed and his Chinese social media accounts were deleted for reporting on earlier pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
When he covered the outbreak in Wuhan, he used Twitter and YouTube, two channels banned by China, where there is no free media.
In an early clip, he told his YouTube viewers: “I will use my camera to document what is really happening. I promise I won’t cover up the truth.”
In a 26-minute video on January 30, 2020 – a week before he vanished – he reveals some of the horrors he discovered and fears that he could be detained or muzzled by the authorities.
His footage shows hospital corridors and a waiting room filled with sick patients, and a distraught woman holding a man in a wheelchair who had just died as she calls for someone to come and take him away.
Appearing distressed at times and on the verge of tears, he tells the camera: “I am scared. In front of me is the virus. Behind me is China’s legal and administrative power.”
He told his viewers the authorities had asked his parents for his location. He added: “I’m not even scared of death. You think I’m scared of you, Communist Party?”
The disappearances of Mr Chen and several others sparked an outcry from human rights and journalism groups, and even calls for the US State Department to investigate.
The whistleblowers’ images showed hospitals overrun with patients, corpses piled in a minibus and exhausted healthcare staff on the frontline, in stark contrast to images released by Chinese officials.
In September last year, it was claimed Mr Chen was found at his parents’ home 600 miles away in Qingdao, where he was under “strict supervision” by the authorities.
A human rights lawyer, who requested anonymity, told the South China Morning Post at the time: “Qiushi, who is together with his parents, is under strict supervision by the authorities.
“Since the authorities have decided not to prosecute him, it is actually not lawful to continue to keep him in close surveillance.”
Another of Mr Chen’s friends, Xu Xiaodong, had earlier posted a video claiming the whistleblower was in “good health” but was being monitored by the government.
In late March, Mr Xu posted a new YouTube video saying Mr Chen was moved to Tianjin after being detained in Wuhan and then to Qingdao, where he is “still there with his parents”.
Mr Xu added: “I have seen videos of Qiushi through sources I cannot disclose.
“With his parents’ care, Qiushi has recovered mentally and physically. He’s doing 100 times better than when he was taken into custody.”
The friend who spoke to the Mirror wants assurances over Mr Chen’s whereabouts and health.
“Nobody actually saw him (in September),” he said. “I am unable to verify it myself.”
He said Mr Chen is being held unlawfully, having never been charged with a crime or convicted, like some of the other Covid whistleblowers.
The friend added: “It is not an uncommon situation in China. He did something the authorities didn’t approve of.
“He went to Wuhan to report on the Covid virus as a citizen journalist. He was never officially detained, so no one knows when he could be released.
“I would say he didn’t break any law and also he was lucky. It could be otherwise.”
The friend said he has tried to contact Mr Chen without success and his parents refuse to speak to anyone.
“They are under pressure,” the friend added.
In his videos, Mr Chen openly discussed depression and taking medication. Those who were close to him fear for his mental health.
The friend said: “I worry about his mental health since he is clearly not free now.
“I only want him to be safe and free. I hope he will be released and allowed to contact the outside world soon.
“He enjoys reading. I hope he can read a lot. He must be very lonely. He loves to make videos and give talks.
“He is smart and talented. He enjoys talking with people. In real life he is a bit quiet and shy. He is very brave.”
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are among the groups urging China to reveal Mr Chen’s whereabouts and confirm that he is ok.
Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director, told the Mirror: “What he was doing is in no way a crime under Chinese or international law, which both guarantee the right to peaceful free speech.
“The fact that he was detained at all for something that isn’t a crime, let alone the fact that more than a year later we’re still uncertain about his whereabouts and wellbeing, speaks to the extraordinary hostility the Chinese government has to people who (publicise) information it doesn’t like them to be discussing.”
She called on China “to immediately clarify his whereabouts and his wellbeing and his status, whether he’s actually been charged with something and if he’s been held, and if so under what kind of authority”.
She said: “If he has been charged with something, the charges should be dropped and he should be allowed to go free.”
Alkan Akad, Amnesty International’s China researcher, added: “Citizen journalists were the primary, if not only, source of uncensored and first-hand information about the Covid-19 outbreak in China. There are not many citizen journalists as they are not able to obtain official accreditation to report news.
“Citizen journalists in China face persistent harassment and repression for reporting news and disseminating information that is censored by the government.
“There is conflicting information on the whereabouts of Chen Qiushi, including some reports that he is staying with his parents, but Amnesty International has not been able to confirm this.
“We continue to call on the Chinese authorities to disclose the fate and whereabouts of Chen Qiushi, as well as other citizen journalists who reported being harassed by the authorities after posting footage from hospitals in Wuhan.”
Mr Chen went missing around the same time as Wuhan businessman Fang Bin and citizen journalist Li Zehua, who had also reported on the Covid outbreak.
Li resurfaced in a video two months later, saying he had spent two weeks in “quarantine” in Wuhan followed by another spell in “quarantine” in his home town.
But Fang, who criticised the ruling Communist Party and recorded videos of bodies being removed from a hospital, has not been heard from since February last year.
In March, sources told Radio Free Asia that Mr Fang was initially detained on suspicion of “incitement to subvert state power,” but that this charge was revised to “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” which is often frequently used to target peaceful critics of the Communist Party.
His family was under pressure not to speak to anyone about his disappearance, whereabouts or the criminal case, the report added.
Zhang Zhan, another citizen journalist who recorded video taken in Wuhan hospitals and streets, was jailed for four years in December last year after being found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.
She went on a hunger strike at a detention centre, where she was allegedly tortured and was said to be in poor health.
Li had quit his job as a journalist at China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, and travelled to Wuhan to cover the outbreak on his own.
Before he disappeared, he said he was being chased and posted a live stream which showed two men in plain clothes entering his apartment as it cut out.
Li said in the video: “I don’t want to remain silent, or shut my eyes and ears. It’s not that I can’t have a nice life, with a wife and kids. I can. I’m doing this because I hope more young people can, like me, stand up.”
Dr Li Wenliang, who was celebrated for raising the alarm about the emerging disease in China, died in February last year after contracting the virus while treating patients in Wuhan.
He had tried to warn fellow medics of a disease that looked like Sars, another deadly coronavirus, but the police told him to stop and accused him of making “false comments”.