The Myanmar military’s arrest of US citizen and journalist Danny Fenster is the latest step in the junta’s attempt to extinguish independent media. The detention of foreign citizens and all journalists will only increase support for the resistance against the military.
On May 24, Myanmar-based journalist and US citizen Danny Fenster was detained at the Yangon airport while waiting for a flight to Malaysia. He was reportedly taken to Insein prison, known for its maltreatment of prisoners and as one site where Aung San Suu Kyi was detained under Myanmar’s last military dictatorship.
Fenster, managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, is one of over 80 journalists arrested by Myanmar’s military junta since the coup on February 1 and his detention has brought new attention to the regime’s crackdown on the media.
Frontier said they were unable to contact Fenster and didn’t know why he was detained; they called for him to be immediately released. The US State Department has since issued a statement pushing for Fenster’s release.
“The detention of Daniel Fenster, as well as the arrest and use of violence by the Burmese military against other journalists, constitutes an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression in Burma,” said a State Department spokesperson. The Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International and others have since made similar calls on the Myanmar military.
Myanmar’s ousted civilian government was already known for targeting journalists with legal harassment, despite major reforms to allow freedom of the press, most infamously for the jailing of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. The two Myanmar journalists were imprisoned for over 500 days for their Pulitzer Prize-winning reports on crimes against the Rohingya and were released in May 2019 as part of a mass pardon.
New junta ramps up attacks on media
The new junta, by comparison, has sought to all but abolish independent media in the country, crippling the newspaper industry, severely restricting internet access and banning satellite television.
The military has revoked the media licenses of eight outlets based in the country, though most of the outlets—Myanmar Now, Mizzima, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Khit Thit Media, 74 Media and Tachileik News—have defied the order and continued to publish. National outlets Myanmar Times and The Voice have also ceased operations.
On May 12, a reporter for DVB, U Min Yo,was sentenced to three years in prison for “criminal mutiny.” U Nay Myo Linn, editor-in-chief of the Mandalay-based news outlet Voice of Myanmar, and Ko Shine Aung, a reporter for the outlet, were detained on April 27 and later charged with spreading “false news”.
As the junta targets established media outlets, people across the country have stepped in to fill the gap by founding their own informal media channels. Publishing on Facebook and gaining hundreds of thousands of followers, these “hyper-local, township-based media outlets”, as Frontier put it, provide vital information about the ongoing protests and resistance to the military.
The people behind these outlets are often young and some have little experience in media. “When mainstream media learned about us, they interviewed us about the situation in Myingyan,” a reporter with one of the new outlets told Frontier. “We achieved our goal.”
In addition to Fenster, at least three other foreign journalists in Myanmar have also been arrested.
Polish photographer Robert Bociaga was arrested in March and held for two weeks before being deported.
Japanese journalist Yuki Kitazumi, a freelance reporter, was arrested in April facing charges under a law against “fake news” but was released in mid-May and deported. Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said that Tokyo used “various channels” to pressure the Myanmar military into dropping the indictment against Kitazumi. Around the same time, Japan announced it would send US$4 million in food aid to Myanmar under the World Food Programme.
Nathan Maung, a US citizen and co-founder of the news site Kamayut Media, has been detained since March 9 along with his co-founder Hanthar Nyein.
Repression of media is part of the return to military rule
For those from Myanmar who remember its last military regime, the crackdown on the press is yet another example of the backsliding since the coup.
One reporter in Yangon told Amnesty, “We feel everything is heading back to our childhood days … we don’t want to go back to those days when we had only state-owned media, spreading propaganda. It’s really difficult to struggle and to survive as a journalist during this period in Myanmar. It’s not safe—not only for the journalists, but also their families.”
Frontier founder Sonny Swe spent eight years in prison under the previous military government after he co-founded Myanmar Times.
Political prisoners face risks of COVID-19
Myanmar’s detention of journalists—and all other political prisoners—is especially risky as the country records a spike in COVID-19 cases amid the ongoing post-coup dysfunction. Testing rates have decreased dramatically since the coup to about one-ninth of what they were in January. Additionally, all government institutions that report COVID-19 statistics are controlled by the military. Millions of people have also refused to be vaccinated by the military government.
Outbreaks of COVID-19 in prisons across the border in Thailand and elsewhere in the region suggest that the disease has likely already spread through Myanmar’s prison population. There is a very high likelihood that Fenster and the rest of the journalists in detention will be or have already been exposed to COVID-19.
As the US government steps up pressure on Myanmar’s generals to release Fenster and other prisoners, the military’s response will show just how far they’re willing to push their relationships with foreign governments. Debates around sanctions and UN or ASEAN action often point to the Myanmar military’s indifference regarding its international reputation.
The detention of foreign citizens, however, will bring a new level of pressure against the regime and may show that the generals will eventually respond in some cases, as shown by Tokyo’s negotiations for Kitazumi’s release. As long as the junta refuses to release Fenster and other journalists, calls for an end to military rule will only continue to grow—as will sympathy for the armed groups fighting against the new government.