Myanmar junta jails US journalist for 11 years, drawing widespread condemnation

The harsh punishment is seen as a ploy to pressure Washington over sanctions.
Myanmar junta jails US journalist for 11 years, drawing widespread condemnation This undated file photo released on June 4, 2021 courtesy of the Fenster Family shows US journalist Danny Fenster.

A court in Myanmar on Friday sentenced U.S. journalist Danny Fenster to 11 years for encouraging resistance to the country’s military rulers and other alleged crimes, drawing a rebuke from the U.S. State Department, which called the conviction “unjust.”

Fenster was a managing editor for the online Frontier Myanmar magazine when he was arrested as he attempted to leave the country in May. He was also charged with unlawful association and violating immigration laws.

The court found him guilty on all three charges Friday, his lawyer told RFA. Fenster’s sentence, which includes a period of hard labor, is the harshest given to any of the seven known journalists convicted by the military junta that seized power from the country’s democratically elected government in a Feb. 1 coup.

Fenster could also face life imprisonment if convicted on two more charges of terrorism and treason, which were added to his case on Thursday.

The sentences were imposed by the Special Court at Insein Prison. When asked by his lawyer if he would appeal his case, Fenster replied that he would not, “because these orders came from above."

The U.S. State Department said in a statement that the ruling “represents an unjust conviction of an innocent person."

"We are closely monitoring Danny's situation and will continue to work for his immediate release," the department said.

Fenster’s charges were in part based on his former work at Myanmar Now News, which continued to broadcast after the junta ordered it and other outlets to close. But the journalist had stopped working for Frontier Myanmar in July 2020, months before the coup, Myint Kyaw, a Yangon-based journalist who has been following the case, told RFA.

“I think this sentence is very ugly,” he said.

The charges had no legal basis, Frontier Myanmar’s Editor-in-Chief Thomas Kean told RFA.

"Danny's legal team made it clear to the court last year that he had already resigned from Myanmar Now and was working for Frontier," Kean said.

A statement by the magazine said the court had ignored Frontier Myanmar's tax and social security records and statements by Frontier employees presented to the court as evidence.

Myanmar Now’s Editor-in-Chief Swe Win also confirmed to RFA that Fenster had left the company before the coup.

Fenster was also accused of supporting illegal organizations like the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a group of ousted lawmakers that eventually formed Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government.

Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for the junta, said that journalists were also charged with crimes when the NLD was in power. The court reached the proper verdict, he said.

"It was because of what he had written and the crimes he had committed,” Zaw Min Tun told RFA.

International reaction

The harsh sentencing was emblematic of the struggles of journalists in Myanmar since the coup, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.

“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,” Bachelet said.

Thirty-four journalists who were arrested in Myanmar following the Feb. 1 military coup remain in custody following prisoner amnesties that many had hoped would see them freed, sources in the country say.

Many of the reporters who remain jailed have been charged with defaming Myanmar’s military or for suspected ties with the opposition National Unity Government or the local People’s Defense Force militias set up to resist military rule, sources say.

Advocacy groups joined the U.N. and U.S. in calling for Fenster’s immediate 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. Danny Fenster has done nothing that should be considered a crime,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“The junta’s rationale for this outrageous, rights abusing sentence is first to shock and intimidate all remaining Burmese journalists inside Myanmar by punishing a foreign journalist this way. The message is that ‘if we can do this to a foreigner, imagine what we will do to you,’” he said.

Robertson said the junta also wanted to send a message to the U.S. that they would be willing to take hostages in response to economic sanctions.

Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific director at Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told RFA’s Myanmar Service that Fenster’s was the longest sentence for a journalist in Myanmar in decades.

He called the conviction “extremely shocking” but said that it was probably part of a larger strategy that has nothing to do with any crimes Fenster allegedly committed.

“They like the fact that they can have someone who is [still at risk for] life imprisonment, which can put them in a good position to negotiate with the West in general and with the U.S.,” he said.

Paris-based RSF ranked Myanmar 140th out of 180 countries in the 2021 edition of its annual World Press Freedom Index and singled out junta chief Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing as among the world’s 37 worst leaders in terms of media restrictions.

The country has fallen in position every year since it was ranked 131st in 2017.

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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