American journalist Danny Fenster, the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, was sentenced today to 11 years in prison by a Myanmar military court. Fenster was found guilty of encouraging dissent against the military, unlawful association and breaking immigration law. The trial took place behind closed doors inside Insein prison in Yangon.
The IPI global network condemns Fenster’s conviction in the strongest possible terms, and calls for an immediate reversal and for Fenster’s unconditional release from prison.
“IPI deplores Myanmar’s conviction of Danny Fenster, which is an arbitrary act based on the military regime’s desire to crush independent journalism”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “The charges against Danny are baseless, and we demand that he be immediately released and allowed to return to the U.S. We call on the U.S. government to step up efforts to secure Danny’s freedom.”
Earlier this week the junta announced two additional charges against Fenster – sedition and terrorism – which carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The next trial, which will also be closed to the press and public, is scheduled to begin on November 16.
Fenster was arrested last May at the airport as he was leaving to visit his family in the U.S. and has been held in Yangon’s Insein prison ever since. He is believed to have contracted COVID-19 while detained. Prior to joining Frontier, Fenster had worked for Myanmar Now, an critical independent news site whose license was revoked after the February 2021 coup.
The prosecutor stated that the charges are based on his employment with Myanmar Now, but according to Frontier, “Danny had resigned from Myanmar Now in July 2020 and joined Frontier the following month, so at the time of his arrest in May 2021 he had been working with Frontier for more than nine months”.
As international pressure has grown on Myanmar’s military, observers believe the junta intends to use Fenster as a bargaining tool. “This is a common strategy used by the junta many times before”, Soe Myint, the editor-in-chief of Myanmar-based Mizzima Media Group and an IPI member, said. “It is clear that Fenster is one of the high-profile prisoners which the military uses as hostages to get what they want from foreign powers like the US. Long, harsh sentences can be used as a bargaining chip when the regime negotiates.”
Myanmar’s journalists, independent news outlets and civil society as a whole have faced a brutal crackdown since the military coup in February 2021. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) almost 13,00 people have been killed following the coup, and over 7000 people are currently detained. As of October 20, a total of 102 journalists and media staff had been arrested, with 31 of them still detained.