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Foreign journalists face numerous risks

The attorney for U.S. journalist Danny Fenster said his client wept Friday after being sentenced to the maximum penalty in a courtroom in military-ruled Myanmar in southeast Asia.

It’s no wonder.

We’ve all seen movies depicting harsh living conditions and labor camps in foreign prisons.

Now Fenster, 37, will serve 11 years of hard labor, the most severe sentence of seven journalists convicted since the the military ousted the elected government earlier this year.

Fenster’s offenses?

It was never clear exactly what Fenster was alleged to have done, and it appeared that he was judged guilty by association, convicted of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulations.

Fenster, managing editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was first detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was about to board a flight to Detroit to visit his family.

Much of the prosecution’s case appeared to hinge on his being employed by Myanmar Now, another online news site that was ordered closed this year. But Fenster says he left that job at Myanmar Now in July last year, joining Frontier Myanmar the following month. Both Myanmar Now and Frontier Myanmar issued public statements that Fenster had left the former publication last year, and his lawyer said defense testimony, as well as income tax receipts, established he works for Frontier Myanmar.

Prosecution witnesses testified, however, they had a letter showing Fenster continued to work this year at Myanmar Now.

Word is that Fenster believes the editor-in-chief of Myanmar Now might have forgotten to inform the Information Ministry of his resignation last year.

While doing his job and writing for Frontier Myanmar, Fenster turned out stories about topics such as the struggles single mothers face in Myanmar; free trade in the country; and the challenges of being a Myanmar truck driver there. Like journalists everywhere last year, Fenster also wrote stories about coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, including one human interest story about a family starving after stay-at-home orders banned the chief wage earner from going to work.

Most appeared innocuous and harmless to the new military government.

Nevertheless, Fenster’s court hearings went on inside a prison in the nation’s largest city of Yangon — the city where he had datelined many of his stories.

Friday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price in a statement called Fenster’s sentencing “an unjust conviction of an innocent person.”

Sadly, this is just the latest frightening example of journalists being prosecuted for doing their jobs in parts of the world where a free press and public access to basic information is nary as welcomed as in America.

Operations of a free press is an incredible blessing. Somehow, that often is forgotten, is criticized or taken for granted.

Since a Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar, a military-installed government has cracked down hard on press freedom, shutting down virtually all media outlets, reverting to an environment of information control, censorship and propaganda. The coup reversed years of progress toward democracy after five decades of military rule. According to U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, at least 126 journalists, media officials or publishers have been detained since the military seized power, and 47 remain in detention, including 20 charged with crimes, The Associated Press reports.

Of seven journalists known to have been convicted there since then, six are Myanmar nationals, and four were released in a mass amnesty Oct. 21.

Incredibly, many journalists there continue to operate, despite bans, publishing online and dodging arrest.

Indeed, the will of journalists to do their duty of providing information is strong. And risky.

At least three other foreign journalists from Japan, the United States and Poland have been detained. The other American, Nathan Maung, said he was tortured while in custody.

The situation is bleak, not only for the journalists like Danny Fenster, but for the residents who thirst for knowledge and accurate information, but have no means to obtain it.

It’s unclear if Fenster has any avenue for appeal.

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