US journalist released from Myanmar prison 'cared a lot about truth': colleague

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An American journalist dramatically released from a Myanmar prison and deported Monday on the eve of a sedition and terrorism trial is humble, positive and inspired by George Orwell's writings against authoritarianism, his colleague told AFP.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military ousted Aung San Suu Kyi's government in February and launched a bloody crackdown that has killed more than 1,200 people, according to a local monitoring group, and also ensnared the media.

The junta's war on dissent has seen Myanmar overtake Saudi Arabia and North Korea in jailing journalists -- since February only China has imprisoned more, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Danny Fenster, who had been working for local outlet Frontier Myanmar for around a year, was arrested in May as he tried to leave the country to see his family.

Last week, a court inside Yangon's Insein prison sentenced him to 11 years for unlawful association, incitement against the military and breaching visa rules -- charges his lawyer and the US government said were unfounded.

He was expected to face sedition and terrorism charges on Tuesday, but was unexpectedly released and flown out of the country -- narrowly evading a ruling that could have seen him jailed for life.

Andrew Nachemson, Fenster's friend and colleague at Frontier Myanmar, said his release was "wonderful news".

"But of course he never should have spent six months in jail... and all the local journalists who remain imprisoned should also be released immediately."

- 'Warm, friendly' -

Nachemson, who left Myanmar in April due to fears of his own safety, told AFP that Fenster "was always one of the most positive people in the room".

"He doesn't need to be the centre of attention... he doesn't need a ton of credit," he said.

Fenster was happy working behind the scenes as Frontier's managing editor, he said, shaping and finessing the copy of local journalists that had earned the outlet a respected reputation.

"Everyone that's worked with him has only the best things to say about him... he was really just a warm, friendly, great presence to have around in the office," he said.

The two became friends during weekends spent hiking, swimming and kayaking outside Yangon, where they had moved to cover Myanmar's transition to democratic rule.

Even with the economy surging and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi restored to political power, the country was beset with a lot of problems people "didn't want to talk about," Nachemson said.

"Somebody like Danny wanted to talk about the fact that journalists were still being arrested, that the Rohingya were still being killed," he said.

"He cared a lot about truth and combating authoritarianism."

Nachemson added Fenster is a "big fan" of the writings of George Orwell -- who almost 100 years ago helped authorities in British Burma with their own brutal policing of dissent and manufacturing of truth.

Fenster's arrest on May 24 and subsequent 11-year sentence sparked outrage among press freedom groups and raised fears the junta was heading back to the censorship, intimidation and propaganda during previous military regimes.

While still in detention, Fenster's contact with the outside world was limited to visits with his partner and telephone calls with his family.

The only way Nachemson could reach his friend -- who was believed to have contracted Covid-19 during his detention -- was through letters.

- US diplomacy -

At the time of his release Monday, Fenster had spent 176 days behind bars.

Other foreign journalists detained by the junta have been held for shorter periods, including fellow American Nathan Maung who was freed in June, two weeks after Fenster's arrest.

Maung was "shocked" and "angry" when he heard of last week's sentence, he told AFP, adding that US diplomacy had been a factor in his release.

The same diplomacy appeared to be at work for Fenster, who was pictured with former US governor-turned-global-troubleshooter Bill Richardson after his unexpected release on Monday.

Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, had visited Myanmar just a week and a half ago, saying he was working on private humanitarian relief for covid-ravaged Myanmar and had sat down with junta head Min Aung Hlaing.

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