American journalist jailed for reporting about Rohingya released from prison

Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar — American journalist Danny Fenster walked free from prison on Wednesday — 15 months after he was jailed for his coverage of a Rohingya refugee crisis. Mr. Fenster, a reporter…

Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar — American journalist Danny Fenster walked free from prison on Wednesday — 15 months after he was jailed for his coverage of a Rohingya refugee crisis.

Mr. Fenster, a reporter for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit that focuses on reporting on criminal justice, was held by Myanmar’s army in March 2017 for writing about the treatment of Rohingya Muslims who fled into Bangladesh, where the authorities have opened a massive effort to shelter them.

Mr. Fenster had been jailed while he was in Burma to cover the Rohingya, who have faced state-sponsored oppression in the Southeast Asian country for decades, but who were rarely recognized as fellow citizens. Myanmar’s government was intolerant of those reports, or at least feared what the news might reveal.

“The state was using this as a pretext to stomp on free speech rights, and to stamp out an era of independent journalism that led to a dawning understanding of what to cover,” said Matt Nosanchuk, the deputy executive director at The Marshall Project. “It’s hard to know what else we would have reported about.”

He adds: “He just wanted to tell the story of the Rohingya at a time when their human rights were being systematically denied. This is a major victory for the Burmese people.”

Mr. Fenster, who grew up in New Jersey and works out of the Marsh Center for International Affairs in Washington, D.C., had been working for The Marshall Project since January 2016 and had been based in the country since March 2017. He had filed reports from nine separate locations, including the capital Nay Pyi Taw and refugee camps.

He spent almost a month in prison last year before his imprisonment was overturned. Then, late last month, he was convicted of violating article 53 of the penal code, which prohibits using “harassment or intimidation to create unrest” and is punishable by up to two years in prison. Mr. Fenster’s defense said that he had not done anything of a malicious nature, but was simply reporting the truth. He appealed his conviction and was released.

In response to Mr. Fenster’s release, The Marshall Project pledged to “fully support him and his family as they adjust to life back on the outside.”

Yet far from ending Myanmar’s crackdown on its Rohingya people, the release of the journalist comes as the country is shoring up its standing in the community of international human rights campaigners. Last month, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s foreign minister and democratic icon who led the way in calling for the release of Mr. Fenster.

Ms. Suu Kyi was a driving force behind the rush of international criticism that lifted international sanctions against Myanmar, a country that was ruled by a military junta for more than half a century and jealously controlled much of the country’s media and its freedom of expression and speech. In recent years, international and local criticism had begun to intensify as the country’s military began to open up to the international community.

Over the past month, Mr. And Suu Kyi has said she would pursue national reconciliation and work to amend the state-controlled constitution.

Mr. Nosanchuk said the judgment against Mr. Fenster stood in stark contrast to those of Ms. Suu Kyi.

“Myanmar’s mistreatment of Mr. Fenster — and the political charge she could have made over it — points to the necessary change that needs to happen in the country,” he said. “The prime minister needed to put Burma’s rights violations on the international stage and call out Mr. Suu Kyi for it. I don’t think that she would have.”

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