Danny Fenster is free.
Just days after the military junta of Myanmar sentenced him to 11 years of hard labor for visa breaches, unlawful association with an illegal group and spreading false news, the managing editor of the independent online publication Frontier Myanmar and Huntington Woods native was back on American soil Nov. 16.
He embraced his parents, Buddy and Rose Fenster, and brother Bryan Fenster outside the TWA Hotel at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York as recorded jazz music blared from a loudspeaker. Buddy presented his son with a T-shirt bearing the logo with his portrait that had become the mainstay on many lawns and storefront signs all over Metro Detroit during the 176 days he was held captive in Myanmar’s Insein Prison.
Speaking briefly inside the hotel at a press conference sponsored by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Fenster expressed gratitude to former New Mexico governor and U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson and the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, the nongovernmental nonprofit organization responsible for securing his freedom.
He said he looked forward to spending some private days reuniting with his family yet stressed he will work on keeping the focus on the thousands of Burmese who remain imprisoned on false charges.
According to rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 10,143 people have been arrested since the Feb. 1 coup and 1,260 people have been killed in violence in Myanmar, most of them in a crackdown by security forces on protests and dissent.
According to the United Nations, at least 126 journalists, media officials or publishers have been detained by the military since the takeover and 47 remain in custody, though not all of them have been charged.
“We need to continue to concentrate on not just the captured journalists, but the Myanmar citizens who are doctors, teachers and others who are still in prison right now,” Fenster said to the press. “So, this will be a short little celebration. Let us all keep focused on what the actual story is here.”
Fenster spent prison days in his harsh environs “reading, jogging in circles in a small courtyard, thinking for hours while staring at the walls and getting in ‘trouble’ when he tried to turn the lights off in his cell at night to sleep.” He said he was not beaten or starved. He added that eventually his wife, Julianna, was allowed to visit him every other week to deliver parcels of food.
At one of his many hearings at a courthouse, Fenster recalled how a police aide secretly flashed a photo on his phone showing Buddy and Rose on CNN asking for his release.
“My parents were on CNN wearing T-shirts with my face on it,” Fenster recalled. “It was a bizarre thing to see. I was a little aware of what was going on (to call for my release), and I know my brother (Bryan) and all the good things he is capable of.”
During Fenster’s captivity, Richardson, along with the efforts of a multi-national negotiation with the Myanmar military government, secured the release based on humanitarian reasons. They worked independently from the U.S. government and divulged few details of the conditions of Fenster’s release.
On Monday, Nov. 15, the military junta did not clear Fenster of his charges but announced to him he was being deported. He was driven to an airport in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, where Richardson and a small delegation met Fenster on a tarmac outside a private chartered jet headed to Qatar. After an overnight stay, Fenster, Richardson and the delegation touched down at JFK on Tuesday, Nov. 16.
At the conference, Richardson Center Executive Director Mickey Bergman said the organization had been in constant contact with the Fenster family while Richardson had four in-person meetings with Myanmar junta Commander in Chief General Min Aung Hlaing since the beginning of the ordeal. Bergman praised Richardson for his negotiation skills as well as the efforts of Qatari government officials.
“We believe diplomacy is about showing up,” said Bergman, a former Israeli Defense Forces paratrooper. “It’s about personal relationships and especially sitting down with people with whom you disagree.
“It is complicated, and sometimes it fails. Today, it worked. Seeing Danny hugging his family outside was absolutely worth every single step of the way. I am thankful for Gov. Richardson for always being willing to show up.”
Before giving his statements, Richardson acknowledged the efforts of Fenster’s family and remarked that the joyous day could not have been possible without a team effort that spanned across political parties, countries, government and non-government organizations.
He said he believed that visits with those in his organization with Hlaing not only freed Fenster but also Aye Moe, a 31-year-old woman on Richardson’s staff who was arrested during civilian protests. He added that his visits also secured deliveries of humanitarian and COVID aid to Myanmar’s population and loosened up visitation restrictions for those jailed at Insein Prison.
“During those meetings, I said to (Hlaing) that (Fenster’s release) would be a humanitarian gift to the American people,” Richardson said. “Fenster was a journalist doing his job reporting what was happening, and he shouldn’t suffer. Like Danny said, we’ve got a long way to go all over the world. The more vulnerable people that are arrested are journalists because they’re reporting the truth. This is not just in Myanmar. This is worldwide. And this is not right.”
Congressman Andy Levin (D-9), who serves as the vice-chair of the Asia Sub Committee for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and penned the first resolution condemning the Feb. 1 military coup in the country formerly known as Burma, said the knowledge that Fenster had cleared Myanmar airspace was “his happiest moment in Congress.”
He praised the efforts of Richardson and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and U.S. Ambassador to Burma Thomas Vajda. Imploring for an end to unfruitful unilateral diplomacy, he praised the efforts of the governments of Japan, Singapore, Thailand, China, Israel, Qatar, Sri Lanka, India and others for the success of Fenster’s freedom.
“This was an incredibly broad effort that proves that America going it alone has never worked,” Levin said to reporters. “We want to thank those (we worked within these countries) who did things, most of which will never be known to get him out of there.”
Levin noted that the diplomacy to free Americans being detained abroad is not over, referring to American missionaries who have been kidnapped and held for ransom in Haiti since late October (though at press time some have been released). Levin praised his Huntington Woods constituents as the “heart and soul” of keeping Fenster’s plight in the public eye for many months.
Outside the press conference, statements of great relief from government officials at Fenster’s release were tempered with the message that so many political prisoners, many of them journalists, remain behind bars in Myanmar and around the world.
Blinken’s office released the following statement: “We welcome the release of American journalist Daniel Fenster from prison in Burma, where he was wrongfully detained for almost six months. I commend Ambassador Tom Vajda and his team at U.S. Embassy Rangoon, Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, the expertise of Consular Affairs, and the dedicated partners, including Gov. Bill Richardson, who helped facilitate Danny’s release.
“We are glad that Danny will soon be reunited with his family as we continue to call for the release of others who remain unjustly imprisoned in Burma.”
Sen. Gary Peters, along with his Michigan colleagues, repeatedly called for the release of Danny Fenster and has held numerous conversations with Biden Administration officials while co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation condemning the Burmese military coup.
Welcoming Fenster home, Peters wrote: “This nightmare is finally over for Danny’s family, friends and loved ones. Danny was doing incredible work telling the stories of the Burmese people — and his unjust detention was an attack on the freedom of the press. That’s why I worked with administration officials and Danny’s family in Michigan to continue to press for Danny’s release, and I want to thank everyone who worked tirelessly to bring Danny home.”
Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter expressed gratitude for the persistence of the Fenster family, the negotiating skills of Richardson and the perseverance of Danny Fenster, a journalist “who never should have been arrested for doing his job.”
In a press release, Michigan state officials such as Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and Rep. Regina Weiss (D-Oak Park) said grassroots activity in their communities greatly contributed toward Fenster’s release.
“I’m so grateful that, after almost six months, Danny is finally headed home,” Weiss said. “There is no doubt that the tireless advocacy of Danny’s family and so many in our community has had an immense impact on Danny’s release. I am elated that he will soon be back home in Michigan with his family.”
In June, the Michigan Legislature adopted Senate Resolution 61, sponsored by Moss, and House Resolution 118, sponsored by Weiss, calling for Fenster’s release and safe return home.
“This is the moment we’ve been waiting for,” Moss stated. “Many voices from our community shared Danny’s story over these last 176 days, making sure the efforts to secure his release were fueled and energized. I’ve been in awe of the resilience, tenacity and strength of the Fenster family during this uncertain time.”
American Jewish Congress/Jewish Community Relations Council Detroit Executive Director Asher Lopatin in a press release said the organization gives gratitude to all who played an important role in enabling his release, including Levin and Richardson, while maintaining grave concern for those still in peril in the cloistered country.
“We continue to express outrage that so many in the media, reporters and journalists are still being held in prison in Myanmar by the military government and are awaiting trials and call for their immediate release,” read the statement. “The JCRC/AJC and the Jewish community stands firmly behind the right of free speech and … human beings to speak the truth. May the light and courageous stories from the upcoming holiday of Chanukah inspire all those who are awaiting freedom and justice and fill us all with hope.”
Journalists and organizations that support domestic and global efforts for a free press and freedom of speech agreed that Fenster’s release was encouraging but cautioned there are still journalists imprisoned and imperiled all over the world by totalitarian governments.
“We lend our voice to the broader issue of freedom of the press and the free flow of information around the world,” Roy Gutterman, Syracuse University professor and director for the Tully Center for Free Speech, told the JN.
“Journalists take risks to tell the rest of the world what’s going on. We rely on foreign reporters the same way we rely on the local reporter who goes to that city council or board of education meeting to keep the rest of us informed. The press serves an important function and, unfortunately, that can mean taking risks and going to places where they are not welcome.”
The Society of Professional Journalists in a press release said the organization remains concerned that Fenster’s conviction has not been expunged.
“It is clear that Fenster’s only crime was being a journalist,” said SPJ International Community Co-Chair Dan Kubiske. “He should not be forced to bear the burden of being convicted of any crime simply because of his good work.”
Former CBS White House Correspondent Peter Maer, who traveled to Myanmar to cover former President Barack Obama’s 2014 visit with 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nobel Peace Prize Aung San Suu Kyi, who was the country’s leader before she was ousted by the military takeover and is also in prison on similar charges faced by Fenster, described a country where citizens were under constant surveillance and “everyone is always looking over their shoulders.”
“As we celebrate Fenster’s freedom, we cannot forget the oppression of the other reporters who are still there in prison just for doing the job of reporting the news,” Maer said in an interview with the JN.
“We have to also consider the fact that those who have the means and connections should fight for freedom for journalists who are being held by authoritarian regimes for doing nothing more than doing their work. We also have to be on guard in this country on attacks on journalism and the First Amendment.”
Burmese native Kyat Thien worked as a citizen journalist in Myanmar, notably smuggling out reports to foreign news agencies in 2008 when the Burmese military blocked international humanitarian aid in the wake of a devastating cyclone that killed thousands. He was jailed for six months, being repeatedly beaten and tortured while blindfolded in the middle of the night by his captors who tried to get him to reveal the names and whereabouts of his colleagues.
He said he was released by lying to his captors that he would spy on other journalists but instead, through a clandestine and complicated network of contacts, he paid his way out of Myanmar, made it to Thailand and eventually to the United States in 2010.
“In my opinion, the general released Danny Fenster to Bill Richardson because the Burmese military is afraid of the United States military; it’s that simple,” Thein, who now lives in California, told the JN. “I do not have hope that other Burmese journalists who are imprisoned will be released. I have concern for all those who are detained in the notorious prisons of Burma and every day (the military) arrests more. The military is especially afraid of Generation Z and many are being arrested because they are resisting the military and want to have a free open society.”
Editor’s Note: Look for an interview with Danny Fenster in an upcoming issue after he has had time to recover from his ordeal and enjoy his family during the holidays.
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Danny Fenster is free.