When I first heard that a Michigan journalist working for Frontier Myanmar had been arrested and thrown in jail, I’m chagrined to admit that my first thought wasn’t for his safety.
My first thought was, “There’s a guy from Michigan working as an editor of Frontier Myanmar? Had I known Danny Fenster, the whole thing would’ve made sense. Now that I’ve spent time talking with him after his release from prison, I’ve had a glimpse of the journalist’s DNA that I should’ve recognized from the start. (Anyone working as a journalist in one of the most opaque societies in the world clearly has that curiosity gene that is indispensable for a reporter worth his notebook.)
Danny was first drawn to Myanmar by the very opacity that has long described the nation we once knew as Burma. And with a young democracy trying to take hold, it did indeed look like a ripe reporting landscape.
Until it wasn’t.
A military takeover returned Myanmar to the kind of oppression that long defined the small corner of southeast Asia and quite quickly being a journalist became a risky gambit. Oddly enough, Danny wasn’t taken into the custody because he was working for Frontier Myanmar, but rather it was his possession of an old business card that connected him to his previous employer, a news operation very much at odds with the military and its newly claimed power. And just a few minutes from stepping onto a plane to return home for a surprise visit to his family in Huntington Woods, Danny was taken into custody.
Even after his first appearance before a judge, Danny was certain this would be an ordeal that would last a few days, perhaps a few weeks at most. But days and weeks turned into weeks and months and when he was suddenly sentenced to 11 years of hard labor, he fell into the kind of despair one would expect. He never really did figure out what “hard labor” meant because three days later, he was heading home on a private jet arranged by the former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson who now works to free Americans held in captivity around the world. It turned out that the conviction and the sentence were necessary, that they were actually what enabled his release. By releasing a convicted American, Myanmar could claim some humanitarian grace though oddly juxtaposed to his ridiculous arrest in the first place.
I admire Danny for quite a few reasons, not the least of which is his resourceful tenacity at making through a half year in a foreign prison. (His mother told me that was the one thing she never worried about; Danny is tough.) But what I really enjoyed about talking to Danny was his commitment to the story of Myanmar and his firm belief that Frontier Myanmar is making a difference. (It may not be bookmarked on your computer, but for those dialed in on that part of the world, it is required reading and that includes those in power. It is one more shining example of the power of local journalism.
I told Danny that one of my favorite movies is “The Year of Living Dangerously” with Mel Gibson, Linda Hunt and Sigourney Weaver, directed by Peter Weir. It’s about a journalist in Jakarta trying to cover the overthrow of the Sukarno regime, constantly under threat from the military. Danny hadn’t seen it. To Danny and to you, run to it. It’s a great movie but it will remind you of the incredibly important work being done by journalists all over the world.