BREAKING: Danny Fenster released from Myanmar prison, Columbia community reacts

By Anna Busalacchi, Managing Editor

Courtesy of Myanmar Military True News Information Team via AP

U.S. journalist and 2009 journalism alum Danny Fenster was released from a Myanmar prison on Monday, just a few days after receiving an 11-year sentence for various charges related to his work as an editor and reporter in the country.

Fenster, the managing editor of the online publication Frontier Myanmar, was freed from Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, with the help of former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson, who negotiated with Myanmar’s military ruler, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. Fenster and Richardson left the country on Monday and are scheduled to arrive in the U.S. on Tuesday, Nov. 16, according to the Associated Press.

In a statement from the Fenster family to the Chronicle and other publications on Monday, the family said: “We are overjoyed that Danny has been released and is on his way home — we cannot wait to hold him in our arms. We are tremendously grateful to all the people who have helped secure his release, especially Ambassador Richardson, as well as our friends and the public who have expressed their support and stood by our sides as we endured these long and difficult months.”

Fenster was detained on May 24 — nearly six months ago — at the Yangon International Airport on his way to his home in Detroit.

Forty-seven other journalists still remain in custody in Insein Prison in Yangon, controlled by the Myanmar military regime, which seized power in a coup on Feb 1, according to the AP.

As reported by the Chronicle on Nov. 12, Fenster was convicted of three charges: incitement, unlawful association and violation of immigration laws, all based on the assumption that he continued working at Myanmar Now, a publication for which Fenster stopped working in July 2020 when its license was revoked.

Two additional charges under Counter-Terrorism Laws were added last week, and another court hearing had been scheduled for Nov. 16. All charges against Fenster have now been dropped, according to the AP.

Lambrini Lukidis, associate vice president of Strategic Communications and External Relations, said she is delighted by the news, and Fenster’s story is one that will be shared with Columbia students.

“I think he really does embody all of the things and the journalistic values that we teach at Columbia, and [Fenster is] just the type of global citizen that we want our students to embody,” Lukidis said.

Erin McCarthy, interim chair of the Communication Department and associate professor of history in the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department, said she wanted to “extend an expression of support to Danny Fenster and his family and close friends — and his family at Columbia in journalism and communication. We’re certainly happy to hear the news and want to welcome him home.”

Fenster’s story hit close to home for the Columbia community, especially current journalism students who are on a similar path.

Kimberly Kapela, a junior journalism major and vice president of the Columbia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said she was following the situation closely.

“Journalism isn’t a crime,” Kapela said. “I think it’s really important that we all learn from the situation and be able to take media law and ethics more seriously when it comes to these situations, but we should also be aware of our rights as reporters.”

Fenster’s freedom says a lot about perseverance, endurance and faith, said Noah Isackson, an adjunct faculty member in the Communication Department and one of Fenster’s former teachers.

“I think we’re going to learn so much more in the days ahead, and there will be plenty of life lessons and academic lessons that will come out of this,” Isackson said. “But most important is the fact that Danny’s back home.”

Awakened by multiple texts and direct messages about Fenster’s release on Monday, freelance journalist Dan Sinker, a former associate professor in the Communication Department and Fenster’s former teacher, said the news is “thrilling.”

“I went to bed thinking about Danny and woke up, and suddenly he’s released,” Sinker said. “It’s relieving and surprising in all the best ways. I can’t wait to see pictures of him back on U.S. soil.”

Sinker was the first to break the news of Fenster’s freedom to his friend and former colleague Sam Weller, associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department, who also taught Fenster. The two were persistent about Fenster’s cause on social media.

“This is just a reminder to me of how important family is and how strong a bond loving families have with one another,” Weller said. “[The Fenster family’s] resolve through this whole thing, their patience, their courage, their resolve and their steadfast focus on just getting Danny home over all of these days has just been absolutely stunning.”

Weller said he plans to share the good news with his “Big Chicago: Epicenter of Popular Culture” class with 140 students on Monday and create a dialogue around the role of journalists and artists today.

“[Students are] moving into this world the way Danny Fenster did 12 years ago, and they’ll move out into this world and practice their art. … And so it’s super important to make them aware that this is the world we’re all creating in,” Weller said. “It’s not a perfect place by any means, and it can be a scary place, and it takes courage to be an artist.”