Additional charge against American journalist Danny Fenster related to his work with Myanmar Now, says lawyer

An additional charge that was laid against detained American journalist Danny Fenster earlier this month is related to his work with Myanmar Now before the military coup in February, according to his lawyer.

Fenster, who has been held in Yangon’s Insein Prison for nearly five months, was initially charged under Section 505a of the Penal Code for allegedly spreading false information with the intent to incite violence. 

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted on that charge, which is also related to his work with Myanmar Now.

On October 4, junta authorities added an additional charge under Section 17 (1) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act, which carries a two- to three-year prison term, to the case against him.

Fenster, 37, was working as managing editor of the Yangon-based Frontier Myanmar when he was arrested at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was about to board a flight to the US to visit his family. 

Before joining Frontier Myanmar, Fenster worked with Myanmar Now as a copy editor from mid-2019 until July 2020. 

In a statement released in July, Myanmar Now clarified that his sole assignment was editing English-language news stories and that he had held “no other position in the management of the newsroom nor was he affiliated with any type of non-editorial duties.” 

The junta revoked the publishing licenses of five independent news outlets, including Myanmar Now, on March 9. A day before the announcement, junta soldiers raided Myanmar Now’s newsroom in Yangon’s Pabedan Township. No employees were arrested during the raid.

Citing the complaint submitted by the prosecution, Fenster’s lawyer Than Zaw Aung told Myanmar Now the American journalist is being prosecuted for the outlet’s continued reporting on the country since its license was revoked.

The complaint states that since it was banned, Myanmar Now has continued to report on the activities of opposition organizations that the junta has declared illegal, including the underground National Unity Government and the ousted lawmakers’ Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, on social media platforms, the lawyer said.

“The complaint says that the news outlet’s reporting encourages the activities of those organizations and states that those in charge at Myanmar Now should be prosecuted. Danny’s name is included in that, and he was charged as part of Myanmar Now,” said Than Zaw Aung.

At Friday’s court hearing—the 15th since his arrest—both the defence and the prosecution submitted arguments to the court on whether to allow Fenster to be released on bail in his case under the 505a charge. A ruling is expected at the next court hearing, which is scheduled for October 27, his lawyer said.

While the US State Department has requested that the junta release Fenster, military council spokesperson Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun claimed at a September 30 press conference that he was “being held because he needed to be.”

Thomas Kean, Frontier Myanmar’s editor-in-chief, told AP on Friday that the arrest and charges against Fenster in relation to his work with Myanmar Now were “disappointing.”

“It is disappointing that the prosecution is still alleging that Danny was working for Myanmar Now in March 2021, when in reality he had resigned seven months earlier to join Frontier,” Kean told AP.

The military council has arrested around 100 journalists since the February 1 coup. While some have since been released, more than 50 are still imprisoned, according to local advocacy groups for press freedom. 

Most are facing charges under Section 505a of the Penal Code for allegedly “publishing or circulating comments that cause fear, spread false news, or incite government employees to commit crimes.”

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