Editor’s note: Fenster was released by the Myanmar authorities on Monday, shortly after this opinion piece was published.
American journalist Danny Fenster, managing editor of of online news site Frontier Myanmar, was handed an 11-year jail sentence by a court in Myanmar during a closed-door hearing last Friday. He was sentenced to three years for incitement for allegedly spreading false information, three years for contacting illegal organisations, and five years for violating Myanmar’s visa rules. The sentences were the maximum penalties for the charges.
Fenster also faces two additional charges, one under section 50a of Myanmar’s counterterrorism law, and a charge of sedition under section 124a. If convicted, he could face life imprisonment.
On May 24, Fenster was arrested at Yangon’s airport as he attempted to board a flight to the United States to visit his family in the state of Michigan. He was taken into custody by Myanmar’s military authorities and has been held at the notorious Insein prison ever since.
Fellow US citizen Nathan Maung, who had been detained on March 9, was released and deported to the United States in mid-June, leaving Fenster as the only known American currently detained in Myanmar.
The charges that Fenster was convicted of are premised on allegations that he was working for Myanmar Now, a media outlet banned by the junta, at the time of his arrest. Fenster had stopped working for Myanmar Now in July of 2020, when he began work at Frontier Myanmar.
On the Twitter feed for Frontier Myanmar, Thomas Kean, the editor-in-chief, said: “there is absolutely no basis to convict Danny of these charges. His legal team clearly demonstrated to the court that he had resigned from Myanmar Now and was working for Frontier from the middle of last year. Everyone at Frontier is disappointed and frustrated at this decision. We just want to see Danny released as soon as possible so he can go home to his family.”
In a statement cited by AFP, a spokesperson for the US Department of State said: “we strongly condemn the regime’s sentencing of Danny Fenster. The ruling today represents an unjust conviction of an innocent person. We are closely monitoring Danny’s situation and will continue to work for his immediate release. We will do so until Danny returns home safely to his family.
“Danny’s detention, and that of so many other people, is a sad reminder of the continuing human rights and humanitarian crisis facing Burma.
“Journalism is not a crime. Free and independent media is indispensable to building prosperous, resilient, and free societies. The detention, conviction, and sentencing of Danny Fenster, and the arrest of other journalists and use of violence against members of the media, constitutes an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression in Burma.”
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement on its website: “Journalists have been under attack since 1 February, with the military leadership clearly attempting to suppress their attempts to report on the serious human rights violations being perpetrated across Myanmar as well as the extent of opposition to the regime. Myanmar has quickly reverted to an environment of information control, censorship and propaganda seen under military regimes in the past.”
When contacted by this reporter, a spokesperson for Fenster’s family said they are declining to comment at this time.
During a press conference marking Fenster’s 100th day behind bars back on August 31, his brother Bryan said “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.”
Since the military coup on February 1, the junta has aggressively targeted both journalists and news outlets in the country, and has, on occasion, slowed or cut internet access in order to attempt to control the flow of information.
According the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, since the coup, 126 journalists have been arrested, and 47 remain in detention. It also counts 9 media outlets who have had their licenses revoked and 20 others that have suspended operations.
The National Press Club in Washington, DC, announced on August 30 that Fenster would be one of two honourees of the 2021 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award. The award honours journalists who push to disclose the truth under trying circumstances. The press release for the award reads, in part, “they exemplify the importance of reporting hard truths and perseverance even in dangerous conditions. We will continue to advocate for their freedom and for their work as part of the press corps.”
Journalist Kay Zon Nway, a multimedia reporter for Myanmar Now, is nominated for the 2021 Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Award Prize for Courage for her work as a “symbol of the courageous fight for the freedom to inform on the ground in Myanmar.” She was arrested on February 26 while she was live-streaming an anti-coup protest. She was accused of incitement under section 505(a) of the Myanmar penal code and is also being held at Insein prison.
According to Reporters Without Borders’ Violations of Press Freedom Barometer, there are currently 470 journalists behind bars around the world.
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