Amid free press crackdown, Myanmar sentences US journalist

On Friday, a Myanmar court sentenced American journalist Danny Fenster to 11 years in prison. The country’s military-installed government has forced media outlets to close, and an estimated 100 journalists have been arrested.

Fenster Family/AP
U.S. journalist Danny Fenster works out of his van that he made into a home/office in Detroit in 2018. Mr. Fenster, the managing editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was detained in May when he was about to board a flight to visit his family in the U.S.

A court in military-ruled Myanmar on Friday sentenced detained U.S. journalist Danny Fenster to 11 years in prison with hard labor after finding him guilty on several charges, including incitement for allegedly spreading false or inflammatory information.

Mr. Fenster, the managing editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was also found guilty of contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulations, lawyer Than Zaw Aung said. He was sentenced to the maximum term on each charge and ordered to pay a 100,000 kyat ($56) fine.

Than Zaw Aung said Mr. Fenster wept in court after hearing the sentence and had not yet decided whether to appeal. He is the only foreign journalist to be convicted of a serious offense since the army seized power in February, ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mr. Fenster has been detained since May. He still faces two additional serious charges in a different court for allegedly violating the counterterrorism law and a statute covering treason and sedition.

“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,” Editor-in-Chief Thomas Kean said in a statement after the sentencing. “There is absolutely no basis to convict Danny of these charges.”

Mr. Fenster was detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was about to board a flight to go to the Detroit area in the United States to see his family.

The military-installed government has cracked down hard on press freedom, shutting virtually all critical outlets and arresting about 100 journalists, roughly 30 of whom remain in jail. Some of the closed outlets have continued operating without a license, publishing online as their staff members dodge arrest.

The army takeover was met by widespread peaceful protests that were put down with lethal force. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has detailed the deaths of more than 1,200 civilians, in addition to about 10,000 arrests. Armed resistance has since spread, and U.N. experts and others observers fear the incipient insurgency can slide into civil war.

Mr. Fenster’s next challenge is the two additional charges that his lawyer said Monday had been filed in a different court in Yangon.

Than Zaw Aung said that one of the new charges comes under a section of the Counterterrorism Act that is punishable by 10 years to life in prison. The military-installed government has said it would apply the law harshly in cases involving opposition organizations it has officially deemed “terrorist” groups.” Involvement can include contacting such groups, or reporting their statements.

The other charge is under the penal code and is usually referred to as treason or sedition. It carries a penalty of seven to 20 years’ imprisonment.

The hearings on the original three charges were held at the court in Yangon’s Insein Prison, where Mr. Fenster is jailed. They were closed to the press and the public. Accounts of the proceedings have come from Mr. Fenster’s lawyer.

Despite testimony from more than a dozen prosecution witnesses, it was never clear exactly what Mr. Fenster was alleged to have done, and it appeared that he was judged guilty by association.

Much of the prosecution’s case appeared to hinge on his being employed by one of the media outlets, Myanmar Now, another online news site, that had been ordered closed this year. But Mr. Fenster had left his job at Myanmar Now in July last year, joining Frontier Myanmar the following month.

Prosecution witnesses testified that they were informed by a letter from the Information Ministry that its records showed that Mr. Fenster continued to be employed this year by Myanmar Now.

Both Myanmar Now and Frontier Myanmar had issued public statements that Mr. Fenster had left the former publication last year, and his lawyer said defense testimony, as well as income tax receipts, established that he works for Frontier Myanmar.

Than Zaw Aung also said he was unable to produce a government official to testify, which would be difficult to do under any circumstances, and the judge took into account only the Information Ministry letter.

“Therefore, according to this letter, Danny is responsible for Myanmar Now and the judge said that’s why Danny was sentenced,” said the lawyer.

He said Mr. Fenster told him he despises both the Myanmar police and Swe Win, his boss and editor-in-chief at Myanmar Now, whom he blames for his situation because he apparently forgot to inform the Information Ministry of his resignation last year.

The U.S. government, human rights groups, press freedom associations, and Mr. Fenster’s family had pressed strongly for the journalist’s release.

“This long prison sentence against a journalist is a travesty of justice by a kangaroo court operating at the beck and call of the Myanmar military junta,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Danny Fenster has done nothing that should be considered a crime. This bogus conviction should be quashed, and Fenster should be immediately released and permitted to leave the country if that is what he wants.”

Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, also called for Mr. Fenster’s immediate and unconditional release.

“Myanmar must stop jailing journalists for merely doing their job of reporting the news,” he said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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