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Myanmar's Arrest of Journalists an 'Extraordinary Attack on Freedom of Expression,' UN Says

Danny Fenster, managing editor for Frontier Myanmar, is pictured in this undated handout obtained May 25, 2021.
Danny Fenster, managing editor for Frontier Myanmar, is pictured in this undated handout obtained May 25, 2021.

Myanmar's media community is experiencing a critical moment, with a number of journalists detained or charged, says the editor of Frontier Myanmar.

Sonny Swe, founder of Frontier Myanmar, one of the country's top independent news sites, spoke to VOA Burmese on Tuesday, following the arrest of the outlet's managing editor, Danny Fenster.

American journalist Fenster, 37, was detained at an airport in Yangon, his outlet reported.

Swe confirmed that Myanmar's military authorities have moved Fenster to Yangon's Insein prison.

"We are trying to work on his release as soon as possible. We lost contact with him since (Monday)," Swe said. "So far, we simply don't know exactly why and how it happened. As far as legal representation, the U.S. Embassy in Yangon is trying to assist for his release."

A State Department spokesperson said Monday the United States is aware of reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in Myanmar.

"We take seriously our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens abroad and are monitoring the situation," the spokesperson said.

Swe said Frontier Myanmar was "shocked and surprised" to hear of Fenster's arrest.

"We are sure that he is doing nothing wrong while he was doing his job responsibly. We did not expect such kind of arrest," Swe said, adding that the outlet is trying to find out what happened.

The arrest will not change how Frontier Myanmar operates, Swe said.

It is one of only a handful of independent outlets still in operation since the military overthrew the civilian government on February 1.

"Hopefully, there will not be any disruption to our work," Swe said. "We have been working hard professionally, no reason to change our job abruptly."

The news outlet's founder told VOA that Myanmar's media are "passing through this critical moment of the country, under difficult circumstances" and added that he is worried.

"Journalists should not be arrested," Swe said. "I would like to call [on] authorities concerned to release and drop charges, not only for Danny Fenster but also for all detained journalists. I am praying for the release of all detained journalists."

'Extraordinary attack'

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military seized power, with nearly daily protests across the country. During the coup, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi was deposed. She faces multiple criminal charges.

The coup happened nearly three months after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won elections in a landslide. The junta alleges electoral fraud, a charge the civilian electoral commission denies.

Myanmar's Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says more than 800 protesters and bystanders have been killed by the military since the coup began and more than 4,300 people have been detained.

A United Nations spokesperson said Tuesday that at least 88 journalists have been arrested, including Fenster. "As of today, at least 52 journalists remain in detention and eight media outlets have had their licenses revoked. On 12 May, one journalist was found guilty and jailed for three years," the spokesperson said.

"The arrest of journalists and the violence used by the military on anyone caught trying to report or record their actions constitute an extraordinary attack on freedom of expression in Myanmar," the spokesperson said.

The junta has detained journalists, whom it accuses of incitement, restricted internet access, banned satellite broadcasts and rescinded the licenses of several news organizations.

It said that measures such as internet blocks were needed to protect national stability. In March, a military spokesperson said they are arresting only journalists who incite unrest.

Local and foreign reporters detained

Fenster was the fourth foreign journalist to be arrested since the coup after a Polish reporter and a twice-held Japanese photojournalist. Both were subsequently deported. Another U.S. citizen who was arrested, Nathan Maung, remains in detention, Reuters reported.

"We're absolutely stunned and extremely confused as to why Dan was detained," said Fenster's brother, Bryan, in remarks made available by Frontier Myanmar. "We've been assured that there is no concern for his safety, but no doubt we are very worried."

The Vienna-based International Press Institute said Fenster's detention "demonstrates, once again, that neither local nor foreign journalists are safe from arbitrary arrest in Myanmar."

"The international community must respond forcefully to the increase in detentions, violence and intimidation of journalists in Myanmar in recent weeks, which represents an unacceptable attack on press freedom," the media watchdog's executive director, Barbara Trionfi, said in a statement.

Local journalists who are in custody face tough conditions. The family of Kay Zune Nway are worried for her health, said a person familiar with the Myanmar Now journalist's case, who requested anonymity.

Kay Zune Nway was arrested February 27 while covering protests in Yangon.

"Prison authorities accused Kay Zune Nway of staging a hunger strike to protest while she was fasting as a Muslim during Ramadan, then punished her in solitary confinement," the person speaking anonymously said. "Her family is worried for Kay's poor health of nerve aches and stomach problems. According to the recently released inmates, Kay was repeatedly interrogated in prison."

Nilar Khine, a lawyer representing Kay Zune Nway, told VOA Burmese the journalist has a court hearing scheduled for June 3. "My client is still in solitary confinement and wonders why she has been punished," the lawyer said.

The wife of jailed Voice of Myanmar chief editor Nay Lin has said that family are not allowed to visit their relatives in prison. Nay Lin and his colleague Shine Aung were arrested April 27.

Some journalists and news outlets have moved their operations outside of Myanmar to try to protect staff.

However, three journalists for the broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma were arrested in Thailand on May 9, on charges of illegal entry into the country. They remain detained in an immigration detention center.

The Thai Foreign Ministry is believed to be working with foreign embassies to try to move the journalists to a third country rather than deport them.

In Reporters Without Borders' latest World Press Freedom Index, Myanmar ranks 140th out of 180 countries, where 1 is the freest. The media watchdog said earlier this year that the military coup in Myanmar could set the country's journalists back 10 years.

This story originated in VOA's Burmese service. Some reporting from Reuters.