Danny Fenster talks about imprisonment, freedom of the press and his time training at Columbia – The Columbia Chronicle
Award-winning journalist and Columbia alumnus Danny Fenster captured international attention and concern among members of the academic community when he was imprisoned in Myanmar while working as editor of the Columbia-based publication. Yangon, Myanmar, Frontier Myanmar.
As the Chronicle reports, Fenster was detained at Yangon International Airport in May 2021 and taken to Insein Prison, where he remained for 176 days, during which he suffered inconclusive hearings and limited contact. with his family.
The Fenster family gained global support through BringDannyHome.comrelaunching a petition for his release with more than 43,000 signatures and accumulating media attention around Fenster’s story until his release on November 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, his journey to becoming a journalist and the importance of freedom of the international press.
After his release, Fenster said he spent a few months in Detroit with his family and friends, as well as his wife, Juliana, who met his family for the first time. Fenster said it took his wife about 10 days to leave Myanmar due to a law imposed by Myanmar’s military government requiring advance notice from foreigners before they leave the country.
After returning home, Fenster also visited a friend in Logan Square, near where he lived in Humboldt Park. At the end of January, he and his wife flew to Brazil, where they are currently staying in the capital, Brasilia, where Juliana works as a consular officer for the Brazilian government. Fenster is getting to know her family and has resumed working remotely at Frontier Myanmar as a copywriter.
“I help journalists [in Myanmar] tell the story of their country right now, which is in an incredibly fragile inflection point,” Fenster said. “So we’re making a fuss about what the coup did to the health care system, what it did to the education system. There are still many ethnic conflicts taking place in the border regions of the country.
When Fenster first moved to Myanmar, he said his politics were an interesting story to follow, as Myanmar was in transition to democracy until the military coup took control of the country. in February last year.
Fenster said he did not expect to be captured and imprisoned, especially for as long as he was, as he knew many high profile Western journalists who had taken flights home.
“It took me two and a half or three months to stop thinking, this is going to end tomorrow,” Fenster said. “And then three months later, for some reason, I started to think, there’s a real possibility that I’m 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, Fenster said there were about 15 to 25 people and only a few were fluent in 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 sent to him from
family or friends and other books given to him inside the prison. Books relating to Myanmar politics were not allowed, but he recalled two books that took a long 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 jail, I don’t know why, my brain just thought of very specific streets and corners and things in the neighborhood I grew up in “, said Fenster. “It was like it was some kind of fairy tale country. … It didn’t look like a real place.
Sporadic family phone calls were never expected for Fenster, and he said the conversations initially focused on the legal status of his case and understanding the charges. Over time, it became him and Juliana discussing the necessities he needed her to send.
“There were times when it seemed like everything was going in the wrong direction, in the sense that I could end up staying there for a long time. And those conversations were a little darker, a little sadder,” Fenster said. “But most of the time we just tried to bring it back and say, ‘Look, this is the reality, 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 was sentenced to 11 years in prison for incitement, unlawful association and violation of immigration law. But when he was released following negotiations between former US diplomat Bill Richardson and Myanmar’s military chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, his flight home had Wi-Fi, that’s when- there he read some of the accounts of his story, claiming that he did not realize. the highly publicized story that 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 was displaced from Europe during World War II, prompting them to help refugee communities and stay aware of what was happening in the world.
But Fenster said he didn’t always want to be a journalist.
At Columbia, Fenster changed majors a few times, from public affairs to science journalism, eventually settling on magazine journalism. He said the thing he loved most about journalism was that it allowed him to be a student for the rest of his life.
He graduated from Columbia during the financial crisis and a time of economic decline for newspapers – a difficult time to get started in the industry. He spent his early career bouncing back and forth between journalism and what he described as “journalism-adjacent” jobs that provided him with a more stable income.
“I turned 35 and remembered that when I was studying journalism years ago, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent and do international reporting, and I still hadn’t,” Fenster said. “And I thought if I didn’t do it then, there was a real risk of being in line in PR or marketing or something that I didn’t care about. So, I I just came to my senses and decided to go abroad.
When Fenster finally settled on his passion for journalism, he said it immediately felt like the right thing.
“I think there is enormous value in going abroad. It’s a funny thing to say after going through this experience, where going overseas, maybe, in a reading of my experience, didn’t really work out well,” Fenster said. “But I would say, especially in terms of career advice, you can have experience to really make a huge mark in the overseas media landscape, in a way that if you’re trying to make in a major market in the States United, you’re just not going to have the same experience. You’re not going to be thrown into the same kind of difficult situations. I’m not talking about imprisonment, I just mean in terms of managing journalists and learning new ways of reporting.”
Fenster said in other countries there are local journalists who are better placed to tell their country’s stories than Westerners. But as the editor of an English-language publication, Fenster said it was powerful to serve as a conduit to bring stories to a wider audience.
His advice to young journalists: Don’t be afraid.
“This desire to not just report, but the desire of different peoples and different citizens of different countries to have access to reporting with varying opinions, that’s not a Western thing. It’s not a Western thing. democratic. It’s a completely universal thing,” Fenster said. “And so sometimes you get pushed back. “You’re forcing something on this other legal system,” and that’s just not the case. Everyone wants access to information and wants a safe and open space to debate ideas.
Fenster said his imprisonment experience created an emotional connection to the importance of press freedom, which Americans take for granted.
As for Fenster’s next chapter, he said he applied for two college journalism fellowships, one in Michigan and one in Massachusetts, to study media in exile – how journalists report on their country from origin when they were forced to leave them. Fenster said media exiled from Myanmar were beginning to relocate to Thailand.
“It is unfortunately 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. “Actually, I have a tattoo of a heart with a banner that says Chicago on my arm that I had a long time ago, just when I graduated from Columbia College.