Tue, December 07, 2021

international

Family members, U.S. officials press Myanmar for release of detained journalist Danny Fenster


Early on the morning of May 24, Bryan Fenster woke up to a string of alarming text messages: His brother, Danny, had been detained at Myanmars Yangon International Airport while trying to fly home to Michigan, to surprise their parents with his first visit in three years.

"I knew right away that this was going to be really bad," Bryan recalled. His brother had been working as the managing editor for the news outlet Frontier Myanmar, and journalists were increasingly being targeted in the Southeast Asian nation, where the military junta seized power in a February coup. He steeled himself to call up their parents and deliver the news, and then sprung into action.

Eleven days later, the Fenster family still doesn't know why Danny was arrested or what kind of condition he's in. All they know is that he's being held in Myanmar's notorious Insein prison, which houses political prisoners and has a reputation for inhumane conditions. U.S. government officials have been pushing for the 37-year-old journalist's release but say that the junta has denied all access to him.

"We're not privy to everything that's going on behind the scenes, but we are assured that people at the highest levels of the U.S. Embassy are working on this and it's a priority for them," Bryan Fenster said.

Danny Fenster is the fourth foreign journalist detained since the February coup, and the second American. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Wednesday that the junta's actions constituted an "unacceptable attack on the freedom of expression."

"We have pressed the military regime to release them both immediately and will continue to do so until they are allowed to return home safely to their families," Sherman told reporters.

Last week, officials from the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar were able to conduct a virtual visit with Nathan Maung, a U.S. citizen and journalist who was detained earlier this year, Sherman added. "We have sought to visit Daniel but have thus far not been afforded access to him by regime officials," she said.

Human rights groups estimate that Myanmar's military government has arrested roughly 4,000 people since the February coup in an attempt to crack down on opposition. The junta publishes lists of "wanted" journalists who it claims are threatening "state stability," and has detained dozens of native-born reporters.

Danny Fenster moved to Myanmar several years before the coup, during a period when the country was changing rapidly, in what many experts saw as a move toward a more open, democratic society. "He was excited to be there to see the momentum of it opening up, so we were excited for him," his brother, Bryan, said.

As the military crackdown progressed, the Fensters became increasingly concerned about Danny's safety. But they also knew that he had lived in the country long enough to know where he could and couldn't safely go, Bryan said. And since he worked as an editor rather than a reporter, he wasn't attending protests that could have put him at risk.

A native of the Detroit suburbs, Danny Fenster worked as a reporter for a daily newspaper in New Iberia, La., before moving to Myanmar. Both moves were motivated by a deep curiosity about the world and a desire to tell stories that often go unheard, his brother said.

"He cares tremendously about journalism as an art form, but also the responsibility that comes with it to make the world a better place," Bryan Fenster said.

While Myanmar's military government has offered no official explanation for Danny's detention, his family assumes that he was targeted as part of a larger campaign to silence journalists. Frontier Myanmar, where he began working in August 2020, routinely publishes stories that cast a critical light on the junta and highlight potential human rights abuses that have taken place since the coup.

The Fenster family has been in frequent communication with elected officials, including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Congressman Andy Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who have been making calls to the State Department and U.S. Embassy on their behalf, Bryan Fenster said. Fearful that Danny's plight may be forgotten if his name is no longer in the news, they've launched a petition and a website and are encouraging supporters to keep up the public pressure by contacting their representatives.

"We're most concerned about his well being," Bryan Fenster said. "We just want confirmation that he's OK."

Published : June 04, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Antonia Noori Farzan