Danny Fenster talks imprisonment, press freedom and his formative time at Columbia

By Anna Busalacchi, Managing Editor

Vivian Jones

Award-winning journalist and Columbia alum Danny Fenster captured international attention and concern from people in the campus community when he was imprisoned in Myanmar while working as the managing editor of the Yangon, Myanmar-based publication, Frontier Myanmar.

As reported by the Chronicle, Fenster was detained at the Yangon International Airport in May 2021 and taken to Insein Prison, where he stayed for 176 days, during which he endured inconclusive court hearings and limited contact with his family.

The Fenster family garnered worldwide support through BringDannyHome.com, boosting a petition for his release with more than 43,000 signatures and cumulating media attention around Fenster’s story until he was freed on Nov. 15, 2021.

The Chronicle interviewed Fenster about what he has been up to since his release from Insein Prison in Myanmar, his time as a student at Columbia, the journey that led to him becoming a journalist and the importance of international press freedom.

After his release, Fenster said he spent some months in Detroit with family and friends, along with his wife, Juliana, who met his family for the first time. Fenster said it took about 10 days for his wife to leave Myanmar due to a law imposed by Myanmar’s military government, requiring advanced notice from foreigners before they leave the country.

After his return home, Fenster also visited a friend in Logan Square near where he used to live in Humboldt Park. At the end of January, he and his wife flew to Brazil, where they are currently staying in the capital city, Brasília, where Juliana works as a consular official for the Brazilian government. Fenster is getting to know her family and has resumed working at Frontier Myanmar remotely as an editor.

“I’m helping the reporters [in Myanmar] tell the story of their country right now, which is in an incredibly fragile inflection point,” Fenster said. “So, we’re doing stories on what the coup has done to the healthcare system, what it’s done to the education system. There’s still a lot of ethnic conflicts that are happening in the borderlands of the country.”

When Fenster first moved to Myanmar, he said its politics were an interesting story to follow, as Myanmar was transitioning to democracy until the military coup took over the country in February last year.

Fenster said he did not expect to be captured and imprisoned, especially for as long as he was, because he knew many high-profile Western journalists who had gotten on flights home.

“It took two and a half or three months for me to stop thinking, this is going to end tomorrow,” Fenster said. “And then like three months into it, for some reason I started thinking, there’s a real possibility that I’ll be here for six years. … I mean, I couldn’t really imagine six years, but I really couldn’t imagine much more than that.”

In his cellblock area, Fenster said there were about 15 to 25 people, and only a few spoke fluent English, including a monk in the cell next to Fenster, whom he described as his “closest associate” in the prison, but most conversations were limited.

Fenster spent his time reading different books that were sent to him from family or friends and other books that were given to him inside the prison. Books relating to Myanmar politics were not allowed, but he recalled two books that took a significant amount of time to read: “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace and “Gödel, Escher, Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter.

“One thing I had done some days, some afternoons in prison, I don’t know why, my brain had just been thinking about very specific streets and corners and things in the neighborhood that I grew up in,” Fenster said. “It just seemed like it was a sort of fairytale land. … It didn’t seem like a real place.”

The sporadic phone calls from family were never expected for Fenster, and he said the conversations were initially about the legal standing of his case and understanding the charges. As time went on, it became him and Juliana discussing what necessities he needed her to send.

“There were periods where it seemed like everything was going in the wrong direction, in that I might end up staying there for a long time. And those were a little bit darker, a little more sadder conversations,” Fenster said. “But most of the time, we just tried to bring it back around, and be like, ‘Look, that’s the reality of it, but we don’t know what’s going to happen, so let’s just talk about this book that I just read.’”

Fenster said he was devastated when he received the 11-year-sentence on charges for incitement, unlawful association and violating immigration law. But when he was released following negotiations between former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson and Myanmar’s military leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, his flight home had Wi-Fi, which was when he read some of the accounts of his story, saying he did not realize the highly-publicized story it had become until then.

Fenster’s connection to Myanmar began when he and his brother, Bryan Fenster, worked with Burmese refugee families in the Chicago area when Danny Fenster was a student at Columbia.

The two brothers’ extended family were displaced from Europe in World War II, inspiring them to help refugee communities and remain conscious about what was going on in the world.

But Fenster said he did not always want to be a journalist.

At Columbia, Fenster switched majors a few times, from public affairs to science journalism, eventually settling on magazine journalism. He said the thing he liked most about journalism was it allowed him to be a student for the rest of his life.

He graduated from Columbia during the financial crisis and a period of economic decline for newspapers — a difficult time to start in the industry. He spent his early career going back and forth between journalism and what he described as “journalism-adjacent” jobs that provided a more steady income.

“I turned 35 and remembered when I studied journalism years ago, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent and do international reporting, and I still hadn’t done it,” Fenster said. “And I figured if I didn’t do it then, there was a real risk of lining up in PR, marketing or something that I didn’t care about. So, I just kind of picked up and decided to move abroad.”

When Fenster eventually settled on his passion for journalism, he said it immediately felt like the right thing.

“I do think there’s tremendous value in going abroad. It’s a funny thing to say after going through this experience, where going abroad, maybe, in one reading of my experience didn’t exactly work out so well,” Fenster said. “But I would say, especially in terms of career advice, you can have an experience to really make a huge mark in the media landscape abroad, in a way that if you’re trying to do in a major market in the United States, you’re just not going to get the same experience. You’re not going to be thrown into the same kind of challenging situations. I don’t mean imprisonment, I just mean in terms of managing reporters and learning to report in new ways.”

Fenster said in other countries, there are local reporters who are a better fit to tell the stories of their country than Westerners. But as an editor for an English language publication, Fenster said it is powerful to serve as a conduit bringing stories to a larger audience.

His advice to young journalists: To not be fearful.

“This desire to not just report, but the desire of different peoples and different citizens of different countries to have access to reporting to varied opinion, it’s not a Western thing. It’s not a democratic thing. It’s a completely universal thing,” Fenster said. “And so, sometimes you get pushback. Like, if we’re advocating for press freedom somewhere, you’ll hear, ‘That’s just a Western ideal. You’re imposing something on this other legal system,’ and it’s just not the case. Everybody wants access to information, and they want a safe, open space to debate ideas.”

Fenster said his experience being imprisoned created an emotional tie to the importance of press freedom, which Americans take for granted.

As far as Fenster’s next chapter, he said he has applied to two academic journalism fellowships, one in Michigan and one in Massachusetts, to study exile media — how journalists are reporting on their home countries when they have been forced to leave them. Fenster said Myanmar’s exiled media is starting to relocate to Thailand.

“It’s sadly a growing necessity, with the rise of autocratic regimes and really a lot of growing threats to press freedom internationally.”

The conversation ended with Fenster expressing his gratitude to the Columbia community and, of course, his love for Chicago.

“I love Chicago,” Fenster said. “I actually have a tattoo of a heart with a banner that says Chicago on my arm that I got a long time ago, right when I was graduating from Columbia College.”