Critics point to the administration’s failure to adequately protect and evacuate Afghan journalists trying to flee persecution by the Taliban as an indication that the United States still isn’t doing enough to support journalists in trouble.
No verdict was delivered in what was a virtual court session, and he remains in Insein Prison near Yangon. His family says he contracted covid-19 in detention and was subsequently denied medical care.
Fenster, a Detroit area native who is the managing editor of the award-winning magazine Frontier Myanmar, was detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24. He was set to return home to the United States to visit his family at the time of his arrest.
Officially, Fenster is being held on unsubstantiated suspicions of spreading false and inflammatory information, but in reality, he remains in prison for practicing journalism in an authoritarian state during a politically sensitive time.
But rather than sending them to jail, Myanmar authorities should welcome journalists such as Fenster, who sought to explain the stories of a distant land and its people. Fenster’s interest in the culture sprung from his time volunteering with young Burmese immigrants in Chicago as they transitioned to life in the United States — an experience that inspired him to travel to and work in Myanmar.
“Danny has a very deep and personal curiosity about lives and cultures that are unlike anything he experienced. He’s always been interested in other people and their stories,” his older brother, Bryan Fenster, told me recently. “And that’s why he’s been able to be a responsible and objective journalist. Especially in this climate, you need truthful, dedicated, loving people who are storytellers.”
His paternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and Bryan Fenster told me that this foundational part of their family identity has guided his brother’s commitment to documenting the difficult lives of others, from working with homeless communities in California to covering the plight of the Rohingya community in Myanmar.
In February, Myanmar experienced a coup d’état that ended in the return of military rule after a brief period of civilian governance led by longtime opposition activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now also being detained. Following the military takeover, protests erupted and hundreds have since been killed. In the aftermath, the country’s media environment has, unsurprisingly, become even less free.
Across repressive regimes, “fake news” charges have become a common tool to suppress expression. The term is usually little more than a euphemism for critical reporting on those in power — the kind of reporting that outlets such as Frontier Myanmar have been known for.
Fenster’s family is coordinating its efforts to secure his release with the State Department, but, thus far, requests by U.S. representatives in Myanmar to visit him in prison have been denied, according to Bryan Fenster.
“We definitely feel like the government are our partners in trying to free Danny. We’re in regular contact with the State Department and the embassy. But as the family of someone who is hostage, you want them to do more,” Bryan Fenster told me. “With all due respect, and maybe this is the way it should be, but it’s hard to grapple with the idea his story is being lost [in the news about] Afghanistan.”
The Fenster family is working with the community of press freedom organizations to ensure that Danny’s story is not forgotten in a news cycle that is overcrowded with tragedy.
Last week, the National Press Club named Fenster one of this year’s recipients of its John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award. It’s a recognition usually bestowed on a journalist in trouble as a way to create awareness about the winner’s plight.
As the recipient of the award in 2015, when I was still imprisoned in Iran, I consider it a badge of honor in retrospect. But at the time, when I learned of the award, I joked that it was the kind of distinction I would have rather not received. Winners are rarely able to accept this award in person.
I’m guessing Danny Fenster feels the same way. His brother told me that when the two last spoke on Aug. 1, “Danny sounded good. The anxiety is there in his voice, but he seems to be making the best of it. His sense of humor is intact, and that’s very reassuring.”
Myanmar, also known as Burma, ranked 140th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index.