An American journalist detained in Myanmar told his lawyer he believes he has COVID-19, but prison authorities deny he is infected.
Danny Fenster was detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was trying to board a flight to go to the Detroit area in the United States to see his family. He is the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, an independent online news outlet based in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.
Fenster has been charged with incitement for which he could be sentenced to up to three years’ imprisonment. The military-installed government that took power in February has tried to silence independent news media by withdrawing their licenses and by arresting dozens of journalists.
The U.S. government and press freedom associations have been pushing for Fenster’s release.
Fenster is being held in Insein Prison as Myanmar faces a coronavirus surge it is ill-equipped to fight, with a public health system in tatters due to the political turmoil that arose in reaction to the military’s ouster of the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. It has a very small supply of COVID-19 vaccines.
Health authorities on Thursday reported 4,188 new cases of the coronavirus, bringing Myanmar’s official total since the pandemic began last year to 212,545. There were 165 deaths recorded, bringing the total to 4,346.
Fenster’s lawyer, Than Zaw Aung, said his client told him during a video hearing that he is infected with the coronavirus and has not received medicines he requested.
Insein Prison began a two-week lockdown on July 8 due to the virus surge. Fenster participated in Thursday’s brief pretrial hearing from the prison, while the lawyer took part from a township court.
The court ordered Fenster held until another hearing on July 28, his lawyer said. It is unclear when his actual trial will begin.
Than Zaw Aung said last month that Fenster is charged in connection with his work at a previous job, as a reporter and copy editor for another online news site, Myanmar Now.
Myanmar Now, along with several other media outlets, had its license revoked in early March, banning it from publishing on any platform. However, it has continued its operations.
Fenster resigned from Myanmar Now in July last year and joined Frontier Myanmar a month later, so it is unclear why he was arrested, his lawyer said.
“Danny should never have been arrested and we are disappointed that he has not yet been freed. On top of that, he is now also at risk of being infected with COVID-19,” Frontier Myanmar editor-in-chief Tom Kean said in a text message Thursday. “There is no point in holding Danny any longer — the authorities should release him immediately so he can go home to his family.”
Chan Aye Kyaw, a spokesman for Insein Prison, said Fenster was not infected with the virus.
He said that since Fenster is a foreigner, the prison provides up-to-date information on his condition. “If the virus was found in him, we will report it. But now Daniel does not have the disease,” he said.
Chan Aye Kyaw said every prisoner is tested for the virus when police bring them in.
“If they were found positive, we keep them in a dormitory for positive patients and they will be provided with medical care. There are more than 30 patients at the positive dormitory. They are separated from other prisoners,” he said.