An American journalist sits in prison as Myanmar suppresses dissent

New York Times
New YorkWritten By: Richard C. Paddock © 2021 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: Sep 21, 2021, 12:03 AM IST


Story highlights

No formal charge has been filed against the Detroit native. No evidence has been presented against him at any of his eight court appearances, which are conducted by video and last only a few minutes. He is not permitted to speak or ask questions and has rarely met with his attorney since his arrest May 24

Danny Fenster, an American journalist who was arrested in May as he prepared to leave Myanmar, was ordered Monday to remain in prison as police investigate a vague accusation that he disseminated information that could be harmful to the military.

The court hearing marked his 120th day in custody. Fenster is the only American known to be under arrest in Myanmar and has become an international symbol of the military junta’s crackdown on free expression.

No formal charge has been filed against the Detroit native. No evidence has been presented against him at any of his eight court appearances, which are conducted by video and last only a few minutes. He is not permitted to speak or ask questions and has rarely met with his attorney since his arrest May 24.

Fenster, managing editor of Frontier Myanmar magazine, is accused of disseminating information that might induce military officers to disregard or fail in their duties, a charge often brought against journalists in the Southeast Asian nation. He faces three years in prison.

The Biden administration, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Frontier Myanmar and Fenster’s family have called for his release.

“The detention of Danny Fenster and other journalists constitutes an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression in Burma,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said earlier this month, using the country’s former name. “We continue to press Burma’s military regime to release Danny immediately.”

Myanmar’s military, which had shared power with civilian governments for a decade, seized control in a Feb. 1 coup, triggering widespread street protests and a nationwide general strike. Troops and police have killed more than 1,100 people and imprisoned 6,600, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an advocacy group.

The junta has arrested more than 100 journalists since February, and 47 remain in custody, according to a media group that is tracking arrests. Four of those arrested have been foreign journalists: two from the United States, one from Japan and one from Poland.

All but Fenster have been deported, including Nathan Maung, an American citizen and co-founder of Kamayut Media, an online news site. While in custody, Maung and his co-founder, Hanthar Nyein, were severely beaten, burned and forced to kneel on ice with their hands cuffed behind them, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Fenster and his wife, Juliana, had been married less than seven weeks when he was arrested at Yangon International Airport as he prepared to leave the country. She has remained in Myanmar to work for his release but has been given limited access to him.

Fenster is being held at the notorious Insein Prison. COVID-19 swept through the institution earlier this year, and Fenster appears to have caught it. He lost his sense of taste and smell and suffered chest congestion, among other symptoms, but was never tested. He has since largely recovered, his family said.

He has seldom been allowed to have visitors, and his communications with family and the United States embassy have been limited. His lawyer, Than Zaw Aung, said he last met his client in person July 15 and that Fenster has never received a COVID vaccine. During Monday’s video hearing, Fenster looked tired, the lawyer said.

Fenster’s elder brother, Bryan, spoke with him in a rare phone call last week and said that he remained positive.

“He is making the best of it, and he has a great attitude,” Bryan Fenster said, adding, “but he has no idea of what is going on in his case.”

Danny Fenster, 37, arrived in Myanmar in 2019 and worked for three of the top English-language news organizations there, most recently at Frontier. He oversaw the English versions of stories for the print magazine and online, his brother said.

The regime’s decision to arrest Fenster appears to have stemmed from his previous employment at Myanmar Now, another online news outlet, even though he left that job nearly a year before starting work at Frontier.

Myanmar Now and its editor-in-chief, Swe Win, have long been targets of the military because of the outlet’s tough investigative reporting. Swe Win left the country after he was wounded in a 2019 assassination attempt.

Swe Win said the regime may have pursued Fenster because he helped report on a Myanmar Now story last year that highlighted the military’s business partnership with Japanese companies in developing a $330 million luxury hotel and office complex on military-owned land near downtown Yangon.

“I believe that Danny’s name was on the arrest list because he worked on that story,” Swe Win said.

A complaint letter filed with the court shows that police mistakenly believed Fenster still worked for Myanmar Now at the time of his arrest, Frontier reported.

Swe Win praised Fenster’s dedication to journalism.

“Danny is interested in Myanmar news and has a strong passion for his professional work,” he said. “He is also humble and always gets along well with his co-workers. He is a good colleague.”

Bryan Fenster said the family hoped the regime would bring formal charges, which could pave the way for his deportation.

“We just want him to go back into court so they can go through their process,” Bryan Fenster said. “The sooner they can go through the process the sooner they can deport him.”

The US Embassy in Yangon is attempting to secure Danny Fenster’s release but has little leverage with the military regime. An embassy spokesman said the State Department is seeking regular contact with Fenster and last spoke with him a week ago.

Fenster earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Wayne State University and worked for news outlets in Detroit and Louisiana before moving to Myanmar. “We always joke in our family that he’s kind of like a tumbleweed,” his brother said. “He establishes roots in one place, and then he is off somewhere else.”

The Fenster brothers, grandsons of Holocaust survivors, volunteered in the mid-2000s to assist refugees in Chicago and were assigned to help a family from Myanmar. That may have helped inspire Fenster’s decision to live there, his brother said.

“Danny is a human being who, in his essence, is hard-wired to care and learn about other human beings,” he said. “In that same spirit of human kindness, we are hoping and expecting that he will be released and reunited with his family and loved ones at home.”