Columbia community shows support for Danny Fenster, Myanmar court rules to extend detention

By Anna Busalacchi, Co-Managing Editor

Sedona Steffens

Danny Fenster’s detention in a Myanmar prison was extended for another two weeks following a court hearing. Fenster faces a charge that criminalizes “any attempt to cause fear, spread false news, or agitate directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a government employee,” according to the Associated Press.

Fenster, 37, an award-winning American journalist, 2009 Columbia alum and the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, a news and business publication based in Yangon, Myanmar, was taken into custody by the military regime on May 24.

Bryan Fenster, Danny’s older brother, said his family’s has continued efforts to get in contact with his brother and bring him home.

“We’re trying to humanize Danny and talk about him as much as we can, share the situation but just who he is as a person, his character, his morals and his work as a journalist,” Fenster said. “Our hope is that if we humanize him, people all over the world, [while] they don’t know him, if they can find some kind of connection to him maybe they’ll be empowered to contact their officials or share his story to keep this thing going.”

According to Frontier Myanmar, Danny Fenster faces a charge under section 505-A of the Penal Code, a potential three-year prison term that has “been widely used against journalists, activists and social media users.” Fenster was detained 32 days ago, and did not get a hearing until June 17. His next court hearing is scheduled for July 1.

According to Bryan Fenster, Danny received legal representation minutes before the hearing by attorney U Than Zaw Aung, but they only know Danny was sent back to Insein Prison. Bryan Fenster said Aung has worked similar cases like Danny’s.

The Fenster family learned of the hearing after it happened and there has beenno official communication between Myanmar officials and the U.S. Embassy in Yangon. Bryan Fenster said the embassy sends communications to the military regime daily but does not hear anything, and that Danny’s case was recently taken on by the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs — a part of the U.S. Department of State.

Columbia released a statement about Danny Fenster “asking the campus community, the alumni network, and public officials to join Columbia and support the family’s campaign to #BringDannyHome.”

Regarding the college’s statement about Danny’s unlawful detainment, Bryan Fenster said his family appreciates the support.

“We are so touched, and Danny would be so tickled by this … it’s a testament to the person he is and the student he was and the journalist he is. [Columbia was] definitely formative years for him,” Bryan Fenster said.

Sam Weller, associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department, taught Danny Fenster in the summer of 2009 and has been an advocate for his release.

“The chemistry in a classroom is emboldened when there’s a positive force in the room and somebody who’s really into it and [Danny] was the positive force,” Weller said.

Weller said Danny Fenster’s unlawful detainment is a symbol of fascism and the increasing threat to journalist’s rights, something he talks about to his students.

“There’s no better symbol than a young man who once sat in my classroom at Columbia College Chicago, who is now sitting in a prison in Myanmar for simply just doing his job,” Weller said.

Weller said every journalist needs to be an advocate for Danny Fenster and other journalists in similar situations.

“It doesn’t matter the size of the publication you work for, it shouldn’t matter … because people bring this patina of celebrity to journalism and Danny is just as important as anybody else who’s out there working,” Weller said.

Dan Sinker, freelance journalist, and former assistant professor in the Communication Department from 2008 to 2011, taught Danny Fenster in an online journalism class in 2009.

“As anyone that has worked in journalism for as long as I have, your heart skips a beat, and then you realize that it isn’t just some abstract journalist, it’s someone that you not only know but someone that you’ve worked with and were involved in an early part of their career and it’s terrifying,” Sinker said. “I’ve not stopped thinking about Danny since I’ve learned about this.”

David Berner, an associate professor in the Communication Department, works for WBBM radio and taught Danny Fenster during his time at Columbia.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that Danny went where he went to work on stories,” Berner said. “Even in the short time that I knew him he seemed very committed to being able to tell stories that didn’t always get told.”

Berner said in his classes he talks about how a journalist is similar to a firefighter, as part of the job is going where it may not be safe, pleasant or easy.

“Sometimes you wait around and do nothing until a story breaks and then suddenly you have to jump into action and work as a professional in a very high level, intense way and to me that’s very much like what a fireman does and what a journalist does,” Berner said.

Similarly, Weller spoke of the necessity of the First Amendment to democracy.

“The best journalists have a fearlessness to them, they might be afraid, but the truth is more important than their fear,” Weller said.

Bryan Fenster and parents Buddy and Rose Fenster, spoke on behalf of Danny in a Michigan House of Representatives committee hearing in Lansing on June 23, and a resolution was passed on the floor urging the Biden administration to bring Danny home.

Bryan Fenster said government officials have been accessible to their family and said they continuously have meetings with Michigan delegation, state representatives, senators and congresspeople including talking to Congressperson Andy Levin (D-MI) every day in an effort to “cultivate a good relationship.”

According to the Associate Press, about 90 journalists have been arrested since the military coup and more than half of them are still detained. Nathan Muang, an American journalist formerly detained in Insein Prison since March 9, was released earlier this month when the charges against him were dropped.

Bryan Fenster said Muang’s release gives their family hope, but they understand every case is treated differently.

The Fenster family continues to share resources on their website, which includes press stories, T-shirts and a gallery of art made by artists around the globe advocating to #BringDannyHome. The Move petition currently has more than 40,000 signatures for Danny Fenster’s release.

“We just want people to stay engaged, hopefully they can call their representatives, which is very tedious, but it is working for us, and call their friends in other states,” Bryan Fenster said.