American Journalist Released After 6 Months in Myanmar

Iris Liu

U.S. journalist Danny Fenster, who has been detained in Myanmar since May of 2021 and faced up to 11 years in prison for infringing on immigration laws, forming an illegal organization, and fostering military dissent against the military, was released back to the U.S. on November 15, 2021.

The journalist was released into the custody of Bill Richardson, a retired US diplomat who assisted in his release. A post on the Myanmar military’s Facebook page reported that Mr. Fenster had been liberated on “humanitarian grounds” at the request of Mr. Richardson and several representatives of Japanese organizations with ties to Myanmar.

Mr. Fenster was originally arrested at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was preparing to board an airplane to meet his family, who were living in Detroit. For the past half a year he was detained at Insein Prison, which is known for its poor conditions and severe treatment of political prisoners.

The military court is pressing three charges against Mr. Fenster based on articles published by the independent news service Myanmar Now, where he previously worked. The military government had declared in March 2021 that the publication spreads harmful information regarding the military and breached a law entitled “the unlawful association legislation,” which stipulates that the president can declare any organization or group of people a danger to the public peace.

Although Mr. Fenster had already quit his job at Myanmar Now (he left the company in July 2020) and is now the managing editor of the online site Frontier Myanmar, the prosecution argued that official records did not accurately reflect where he was employed, which suggested that he was still working for the now-outlawed publication Myanmar Now.

“The court blames Danny for the news written in Myanmar Now but failed to mention which stories in Myanmar Now caused Danny to be charged,” said Mr. Than Zaw Aung, Mr. Fenster’s attorney (New York Times) .

He received the three-year maximum prison term for both broadcasting information harmful to the military and violating the Unlawful Association Act. He also received a maximum sentence of five years for violating Myanmar’s immigration law. 

The treatment of Danny Fenster has angered advocates for press freedom around the world and many spoke out for his immediate release.

“There is absolutely no basis to convict Danny of these charges,” said Thomas Kean, Frontier’s editor in chief. (NPR) “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.”

He added: “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.” (NPR)

For the past years, the Myanmar government has enacted a campaign of oppressing press freedom, arresting about 100 journalists, and shutting down numerous critical media outlets. Some of these outlawed publications have continued to operate, choosing to publish online while its staff members are constantly under the threat of arrest. Around four dozen journalists still remain in prison.

Citizens have organized peaceful protests that were put down with merciless lethal force. Around 10,000 were arrested and 1,200 were found dead. 

“We also recognize Danny is one of many journalists in Myanmar who have been unjustly arrested simply for doing their job,” said Mr. Kean, the editor in chief at Frontier Myanmar (New York Times). “We call on the military regime to release all of the journalists who remain behind bars in Myanmar.”

In addition to arresting journalists, the Myanmar courts have begun giving harsh sentences to politicians who have spoken out against the military. A former local government chief was sentenced to 90 years in prison for six counts of corruption, while a former top state official was sentenced to 75 years in prison for five counts of corruption. For each count, the maximum punishment was fifteen years.

U.N. experts are warning the American government of further brutality from the Myanmar government. Some speculate that the arrest of Danny Fenster serves to intimidate other journalists from publishing negative opinions regarding the militaristic government and also to warn the U.S. from disrupting Myanmar’s global trade.