Myanmar official defends 4-month detention of US reporter
BANGKOK — Myanmar's military-installed government on Thursday defended its detention of an American journalist it has now held for four months, without offering any details of the crimes it alleges.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun did not elaborate in his response at a news conference to a question about Danny Fenster, who is awaiting trial on a charge of incitement, also called sedition. Fenster, 37, is managing editor of the Yangon-based online news and business magazine Frontier Myanmar.
The charge, used frequently against dissidents and journalists, criminalizes "any attempt to cause fear, spread false news, or agitate directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a government employee." It is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Asked about the reason for the arrest, Zaw Min Tun responded: "As for journalists, if they do only journalist's work, there is no reason to arrest them. Danny Fenster did more than just what a journalist does." He said he could not say more, other than that Fenster was kept detained because he has been charged.
Fenster's lawyer and colleagues have denied any wrongdoing on his part.
Fenster was among about 100 journalists detained since the Feb. 1 military takeover ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. More than half have since been released, but free speech remains under tight restrictions, with independent media forced to operate underground or from outside the country. Resistance to military rule was initially met with widespread peaceful street protests, but security forces used deadly force against demonstrators — killing more than 1,100 — and now face violent counterattacks.
Zaw Min Tun denied Fenster's statement in mid-July that he believed he had contracted COVID-19 and was not given medicine he had requested. The authorities at Yangon's Insein Prison also have denied he is infected. He also told his lawyer on Sept. 20 that he had not received a COVID-19 vaccination.
"Danny Fenster is in good health," said Zaw Min Tun. "The COVID-19 vaccine is being given to all those in prisons. It is up to him to decide whether or not to get vaccinated."
Fenster's lawyer Than Zaw Aung said Fenster seemed demoralized when he last spoke with him in a video conference during a Sept. 20 court hearing.
"His hair grew longer. He seemed disappointed and he told me in a frustrated tone that 'I have nothing to say,'" the lawyer said. "I asked him if he had been vaccinated by the prison authorities, and he said no. His words showed that he is not feeling well. He didn't request anything."
Fenster was detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was trying to board a flight to the Detroit area in the United States to see his family, who are now leading a campaign for his release. The U.S. government and international media organizations backed their call for the release of Fenster and other journalists.
Than Zaw Aung said in July that his client was charged in connection with his previous job as a reporter and copy editor for the online news site Myanmar Now.
Myanmar Now, along with several other media outlets, had its license revoked in early March, banning it from publishing on any platform. However, it has continued to operate online.
Fenster resigned from Myanmar Now in July last year and joined Frontier Myanmar a month later, and it was unclear why he was arrested, his lawyer said.
"What I can say is that he was accused as a staff member of Myanmar Now. I'm not clear if it concerns a story posted on Myanmar Now or not," he said.