‘There’s always hope’: Myanmar frees jailed American journalist

Danny Fenster, an American journalist who was sentenced by a Myanmar court to 11 years in prison, has been freed after six months through diplomatic negotiations. He is one of at least 126 journalists who have been detained since the military took power.

The Richardson Center/AP
Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson (right) poses with journalist Danny Fenster in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Nov. 15, 2021. Mr. Fenster is on his way back to the United States after being arrested and detained on May 24, 2021.

American journalist Danny Fenster, who was recently sentenced to 11 years of hard labor after spending nearly six months in jail in military-ruled Myanmar, was freed and on his way home Monday, a former U.S. diplomat who helped negotiate the release said.

Mr. Fenster, the managing editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was convicted Friday of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations, and violating visa regulations. His sentence was the harshest yet among the seven journalists known to have been convicted since the military ousted the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in February.

“This is the day that you hope will come when you do this work,” Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico and past ambassador to the U.N., said in a statement emailed by his office. “We are so grateful that Danny will finally be able to reconnect with his loved ones, who have been advocating for him all this time, against immense odds.”

Mr. Fenster was handed over to Mr. Richardson in Myanmar and will return to the United States via Qatar over the next day and a half, according to the statement. He has been in detention since he was taken into custody at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was headed to the Detroit area in the U.S. to see his family.

“We are overjoyed that Danny has been released and is on his way home – we cannot wait to hold him in our arms,” his family said in a statement. “We are tremendously grateful to all the people who have helped secure his release, especially Ambassador Richardson, as well as our friends and the public who have expressed their support and stood by our sides as we endured these long and difficult months.”

It was never exactly clear what Mr. Fenster was alleged to have done, but much of the prosecution’s case appeared to hinge on proving that he was employed by another online news site that was ordered closed this year during a crackdown on the media following the military’s seizure of power. Mr. Fenster used to work for the site but left that job last year.

According to the United Nations, at least 126 journalists, media officials, or publishers have been detained by the military since the takeover and 47 remain in custody, though not all of them have been charged.

Of the seven journalists known to have been convicted, six are Myanmar nationals and four were released in a mass amnesty in October.

“We welcome the release of American journalist Daniel Fenster from prison in Burma, where he was wrongfully detained for almost six months,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, using an old name for the Southeast Asian country. “We are glad that Danny will soon be reunited with his family as we continue to call for the release of others who remain unjustly imprisoned in Burma.”

Frontier Myanmar Editor-in-Chief Thomas Kean echoed those sentiments.

“Danny is one of many journalists in Myanmar who have been unjustly arrested simply for doing their job since the February coup,” he said.

Mr. Richardson said he discussed Mr. Fenster’s release during a recent visit to Myanmar when he held face-to-face negotiations with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the country’s ruler.

Mr. Richardson is best known for traveling to nations with which Washington has poor, if any, relations – such as North Korea – to obtain the freedom of detained Americans. Recently he has been involved in seeking freedom for U.S. citizens detained in Venezuela.

He also has a long history of involvement with Myanmar, starting in 1994 when as a member of U.S. Congress he met Aung San Suu Kyi at her home, where she had been under house arrest ordered by a previous military government.

In an interview with The Associated Press after his most recent visit to Myanmar, Mr. Richardson said his talks there had focused on facilitating humanitarian assistance to the country, particularly the provision of COVID-19 vaccines. That mission also resulted in the release from jail of Aye Moe, a young woman who used to work for Mr. Richardson’s center on women’s empowerment issues.

At the time, Mr. Richardson said his staff had been in touch with Mr. Fenster’s family, and when asked by the AP if there was hope for Danny Fenster’s release, he replied: “There’s always hope. Don’t ask any more.”

Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Mr. Fenster “never should have been jailed or sentenced on bogus charges in the first place.”

“Myanmar’s military regime must stop using journalists as pawns in their cynical games and release all the other reporters still languishing behind bars on spurious charges,” Mr. Crispin added.

During Mr. Fenster’s trial, 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 the online news site Myanmar Now – one of dozens of outlets ordered shut in a press crackdown.

Both his former and current employers issued public statements that Mr. Fenster had left Myanmar Now last year, and his lawyer said defense testimony, as well as income tax receipts, established that he works for Frontier Myanmar. But without a government official’s testimony to that effect, the judge only took into account the letter from the Information Ministry.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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