Journalist Danny Fenster ’09 Detained in Myanmar
After more than three years of living in Myanmar, journalist and alum Danny Fenster, 37, known for his kindness and intellectual curiosity, was ready to surprise his parents with a visit home. On May 24th, 2021, he traveled to Yangon International Airport, donned his PPE, was cleared through security, checked his bags, and was detained by the military government at the airport.
What happened next is unclear. “We only have our assumptions,” Fenster’s brother Bryan, 39, told WGN on June 6th. He was likely taken to Insein Prison in Yangon, which the New York Times characterized on May 29, 2021, as an institution that has “stood as a monument to brutality” for the past 134 years.
Since the military coup that resulted in the overthrow of democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi, two journalists besides Fenster have been taken into custody by military forces, “It is deeply worrisome that we have not heard from him in the amount of time that we have. It goes against all international law,” said Dan Sinker, previously an Assistant Professor in the Communication Department and one of Fenster’s former instructors.
A statement released by Columbia College earlier today echoes Sinker’s sentiments, saying, “Columbia College Chicago is deeply concerned about the safety and well-being of journalist and alumnus Danny Fenster ’09 after his detainment by the military government in Myanmar. Danny’s education as a journalist at Columbia was rooted in the pursuit of truth, objectivity and exposing social injustice.”
The College is asking the campus community, the alumni network, and public officials to join Columbia and support the family’s campaign to #BringDannyHome.
Fenster’s journey to becoming a journalist in Myanmar began in 2008 and 2009, when he and his brother, then living in Chicago, volunteered to help Burmese youth transition to a life in the United States. That experience, and his experience studying journalism at Columbia College Chicago at the same time, contributed to Fenster’s dedication to using journalism to make a difference in the world.
Once he got to Columbia, Fenster dedicated himself thoroughly to storytelling, finding the community supportive and engaging. “He loved Columbia so much,” remembers Fenster’s brother Bryan.
“Danny’s work certainly epitomizes what we teach students to do at Columbia,” said Associate Professor Curtis Lawrence. “To be curious, creative, to be true to themselves, and to make communities stronger and better. And that appears to be just what he was doing in Myanmar.”
“He was one of the most memorable students that I’ve worked with. He was very professional, he was soft-spoken, he seemed wise beyond his years,” said Adjunct Instructor Noah Isackson. Associate Professor David Berner who had Fenster in his Radio Narrative class, remembers Fenster for his intellectual curiosity. “He was curious about telling stories in a different way,” Berner said.
Since his detainment, Fenster’s family has been actively engaged in trying to bring him home. “My family knows the impact of storytelling and that’s been our strategy,” Bryan Fenster told Columbia College Chicago. “We feel if people all around the world get to know him, they’ll be empowered to act, to do something, because they’ll find a commonality with him.” If you have a story with Danny to share you can do so at: https://fenster-verse.tumblr.com/.
Fenster’s family has set up a website, https://bringdannyhome.com/, which includes action items for the public. Here’s how you can help:
“Keep sharing #BringDannyHome,” Bryan Fenster says. “We’ve been assured everyone in the highest positions has been tracking this and giving input where appropriate. We have total trust in our government and know that they’re working on it. They keep stressing that getting Danny home is of utmost importance.” In addition, he told us, “It really goes a long way when people get a hold of their elected officials.”
“I think when you go into journalism as an aspiring journalist, you’re doing it because you want the world to be better than it is. The best of us recognize that it is not an easy path,” said Sinker.
It may not have been an easy road, but Fenster never shied away from doing the work; one of many laudable character traits his former instructors noticed during Fenster’s time at Columbia. In the end, Sinker says, “I hope and pray that he is safe and comes home soon.”
The international community has rallied around Fenster as relatives and U.S. officials continue to work to secure his release. Though Fenster has had consular access and has spoken with his wife, Juliana, a court in Myanmar extended his pretrial detention on July 1. Fenster faces an incitement charge that could result in up to three years’ imprisonment. His next court appearance is slated for July 15.