September 1 marked seven months since the military staged a coup in Myanmar and seized power. In the ensuing months, the junta has ruled with an iron fist, all but crushing a nascent democracy.
Protests quickly broke out nationwide but were just as quickly suppressed by deadly force from the military. The Assistance Association of Political Prisoners has counted over 1,000 people killed and more than 7,700 detained since the coup began. In March the junta imposed martial law, transferring judicial and executive power to regional military commands and instituting the death penalty for 23 crimes – without appeal.
The junta has also cracked down on journalists, raiding newsrooms and revoking the licences of media outlets. Social media including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been blocked, and internet access cut at various times to curb the flow of information about what is going on in the country. The junta has published blacklists of wanted journalists and asked the public to inform on them. Many have fled the country or gone into hiding.
Those who have been caught face charges under section 505(a) of the criminal code, which allows for up to a three-year jail term for spreading “fake news,” “causing fear” or inciting government employees, soldiers or police to mutiny.
Danny Fenster, a 37 year-old American and the managing editor of independent news outlet Frontier Myanmar since August 2020 is one of those behind bars. On May 24 he was ready to board a flight in Yangon to return to the United States to visit his family in Michigan. He was detained before boarding and sent to Yangon’s notorious Insein prison. Fenster was the fourth foreign journalist jailed by the junta. Fellow American Nathan Maung, who had been detained on March 9, was released and deported to the United States in mid-June.
August 31 marked the 100th day of Fenster’s detention.
Fenster’s family held a conference call with journalists to mark the day. “He has been held now for 100 days and counting – without charge – and there is great uncertainty around his fate because we haven’t been able to speak with him for weeks which worries us deeply … No journalist should be imprisoned simply for their profession. Danny has done nothing wrong, and he should and must be released immediately” said Buddy Fenster, Danny’s father. Also on the call were his mother Rose and his brother, Bryan.
While ever case is different, Fenster’s can give some insight into the situation faced by journalists in jail in Myanmar.
Fenster is being investigated under section 505(a) of the penial code, but as of this writing he has not been officially charged. Through his employer Frontline Myanmar he has a lawyer, with whom the family have been in contact – but there is little news. Every few weeks Fenster has a court date, held over video because of the severe Covid-19 situation. The court appearances last only a few minutes, according to his family, and then he is returned to jail till the next one, with no charges officially filed. His next court date is September 6th. The family says Fenster’s lawyer does not know the reason for the delay in either charging him or releasing him.
The family has been able to speak with Fenster on the phone on a few occasions, but because he is not alone they have to be guarded in what they can say.
Fenster is suffering symptoms of Covid-19, which is rampant in Myanmar, where the military has been hoarding medical supplies including oxygen for its own use. It has also raided hospitals and threatened health workers, leading to a further breakdown of medical services.
Covid-19 is spreading very rapidly among the prison population, where medical care was sub-par even before the outbreak. While not displaying severe symptoms, Fenster has brain fog and loss of taste. Tests are not conducted in prisons, and Fenster has not been vaccinated.
The US State Department has been in touch with the family and is working to try and secure his release.
“We remain deeply concerned over the continued detention of U.S. citizen Danny Fenster, who was working as a journalist in Burma [Myanmar],” a spokesperson told me.
“Danny marked his 100th day in detention on August 31. His detention, and that of so many others, is a sad reminder of the continuing human rights and humanitarian crisis facing the country.”
“We continue to press Burma’s military regime to release Danny immediately. We will do so until he returns home safely to his family.”
The National Press Club in Washington, D.C. announced on August 30th that Danny Fenster would be of two winners of the 2021 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award, which honours journalists who strive to uncover the truth under trying circumstances. The other award goes to Haze Fan of Bloomberg News, who was arrested in Beijing in December 2020 on charges of jeopardising national security and remains behind bars.
Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing was named one of 37 “Press Freedom Predators” by Reporters Without Borders for 2021.
According to the organisation at least 53 journalists are currently in prison in Myanmar for their work and arrests continue unabated. On August 15 Sithu Aung Myint, a writer for Fenster’s outlet Frontier Myanmar,and Htet Htet Khine, a freelance producer for BBC Media Action, were arrested.
Worldwide there are currently 457 journalists behind bars.
In talking about his brother’s work and plight, and the situation faced by journalists worldwide, perhaps Bryan Fenster said it best:
“Danny has worked tirelessly to tell the stories of others both in the United States and around the world throughout his career. A free press is essential, and it remains paramount that journalists like Danny be protected from the increasing threats they face, across the globe.”
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