BANGKOK – A U.S. journalist who has spent more than four months in pretrial detention in military-ruled Myanmar has been charged with a second criminal offense, his lawyer said Monday, while authorities refused to disclose the reason behind his arrest.
Danny Fenster, managing editor of the Yangon-based online news and business magazine Frontier Myanmar, has been charged under the Unlawful Associations Act, said lawyer Than Zaw Aung.
Fenster, 37, already was charged with incitement, also known as sedition, for allegedly spreading false or inflammatory information. That offense is punishable by up to three years in prison.
It is not known what Fenster is accused of doing that led to his arrest on May 24 as he was preparing to board a flight at Yangon International Airport to go to the Detroit area in the United States to see his family.
Asked last week about the reason for Fenster’s arrest, government spokesman Maj.-Gen. Zaw Min Tun responded: “As for journalists, if they do only journalist’s work, there is no reason to arrest them. Danny Fenster did more than just what a journalist does.″
Fenster is one of about 100 journalists detained since the military’s February takeover. More than half have been released but independent media are generally forced to operate underground or from outside the country.
Than Zaw Aung said a judge announced the new charge Monday during Fenster's hearing at the court in Yangon’s Insein Prison, where he is being held. He said he was not given further details.
The new charge says anyone who is "a member of an unlawful association, or takes part in meetings of any such association, or contributes or receives or solicits any contribution for the purpose of any such association, or in any way assists the operations of any such association” may be punished by two to three years' imprisonment and a fine.
Fenster’s lawyer and colleagues have denied any wrongdoing on his part. The U.S. government and international media organizations have called for his release. Fenster is one of a handful of foreign journalists who have been arrested and the only one still in custody.
The charge of unlawful associations has largely been used against ethnic rebel groups seeking greater autonomy. Sympathizers and even journalists contacting such groups have also been prosecuted.
The list of designated groups includes popular opposition organizations representing the ousted elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The National Unity Government and the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), or parliament, were declared illegal after their formation following the army’s seizure of power in February.
Suu Kyi’s government while in power also carried out prosecutions under the law, including against journalists.
“The Unlawful Associations Act has an unsavory history of being used to prosecute political activists and journalists reporting on opposition groups,” Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser for Human Rights Watch, said in March. “By making the CRPH illegal, Myanmar’s junta is raising the stakes not only for its members, but for anyone supporting, writing on, or even just contacting the group.”
Lawyer Than Zaw Aung said Fenster, whom he saw in the Insein Prison court, was in good health despite his previous assertions that he feared he was infected with COVID-19. The lawyer said he filed a bail application for Fenster in the incitement case.