Myanmar’s junta arrests an American journalist, as Trump awaits a coup at home

Eleven days ago, an American named Danny Fenster went to the international airport in Yangon, Myanmar. He was scheduled to fly to Malaysia, then on to Michigan to visit his family, whom he hadn’t seen in more than three years. He told his parents he was coming in July; his early arrival was meant to be a surprise. But Fenster didn’t make his flight—instead, officials arrested him at the airport, then took him, apparently, to Insein prison, which rarely appears in foreign press reports without the adjective “notorious.” Myanmar has not stated a reason for his detention, but it’s most likely that his journalism was at issue. Fenster worked as a managing editor at Frontier Myanmar, an independent news site, in a country that has sought to crush independent journalism since February, when a military junta seized power in a coup.

Since Fenster’s arrest, his family—which has not been able to contact him, and knows nothing of his condition—has worked tirelessly to draw attention to his plight. Relatives launched a petition and a website, BringDannyHome.com, and made t-shirts with the slogans “Protect The Press” and “FREE FENSTER,” the latter wrapped around a photo of him wearing a knit cap and glasses. They’ve given numerous media interviews, too. On Sunday, his parents, Rose and Buddy, appeared on Brian Stelter’s show, on CNN. “We’ve always had a sense of danger once he went there,” Rose said, of Fenster’s decision to move to Myanmar, “but trusting Danny—he’s a strong, independent thinker. This is his passion: to write and to write what’s right, speak the truth. So we’ve always supported him, along with being worried.” Buddy said that when he last spoke to his son, a couple of weeks ago, Danny told him that journalists were leaving Myanmar en masse, or going into hiding. “I could tell there was maybe a change in his desire,” Buddy said. “I got a feeling that maybe he felt it was time to start heading home.”

ICYMI: Why Can’t We Call It An Emergency?

Fenster didn’t make it home, and other foreign journalists working in Myanmar have not been given a choice about leaving: In March, the junta expelled Robert Bociaga, a Polish photojournalist who had been on assignment for dpa, a German press agency. Last month, Myanmar deported Yuki Kitazumi, a Japanese reporter. (The junta was willing to drop charges against him, state media said, “to reconcile with Japan and improve our relationship.” Around the same time, Japan had offered to provide Myanmar emergency food aid.) Many Burmese journalists have been forced to evacuate their homes; for some, leaving Myanmar has proved not to be the end of their ordeal. Last month, three reporters with the news agency Democratic Voice of Burma, whose license was revoked by the junta, were arrested in Thailand and charged with violating local immigration laws. A week ago, a court fined the reporters; they could legally be sent back to Myanmar, where they face severe danger. (The reporters have filed an appeal that will keep them in Thailand for now, and Thai officials have spoken of their willingness to work toward a “humanitarian” solution.) Another Burmese journalist in Myanmar, Mratt Kyaw Thu, who worked as a contributor to the Spanish news agency EFE, spent weeks in legal limbo in Germany, where he applied for asylum, only to be told that, under European Union rules, he would have to apply in Spain instead. This week, he arrived in Madrid.

When I last wrote about the press in Myanmar, in early April, the junta had arrested around sixty journalists; now, according to a group called Reporting ASEAN, that figure is closer to ninety—more than half of whom, like Fenster, remain in detention. Last month, a military court convicted Min Nyo, of DVB, of mutiny—citing a ban against reporting that could, in the eyes of the state, induce soldiers to abandon their post—and sentenced him to three years in prison. This week, his colleague Aung Kyaw and Zaw Zaw, a freelancer who contributed to Mizzima News, were handed two-year sentences under the same code. Fenster isn’t the only US citizen in jail in Myanmar—Nathan Maung, the editor in chief of Kamayut Media, has been held at Insein prison since March, along with a Burmese colleague, Hanthar Nyein. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, both have been tortured. The US state department has repeatedly expressed concern about the treatment of Fenster and Maung, and called for them to be released; yesterday, a spokesperson confirmed that US officials had a virtual visit with Maung, but have not been granted access to Fenster.

The Biden administration has assured Fenster’s family that he is a top priority, and prominent Democrats in Michigan—including Andy Levin, the family’s congressman, who authored a House resolution condemning the coup—have been in contact with the state department and the US embassy about the case. By contrast, prominent members of the previous administration have lately suggested that it’s about time America had a coup of its own. Last weekend, an attendee at a QAnon-linked conference in Dallas asked Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, “why what happened in ‘Minnamar’ can’t happen here.” Flynn replied, “No reason. I mean, it should happen here.” Flynn, doing his best Lionel Hutz impersonation, later wrote on Telegram that the media had “manipulated” his words, and that he meant to say that there is “no reason it (a coup) should happen here.” Then, on Tuesday, Maggie Haberman, of the New York Times, reported that Trump told associates he expects to be reinstated to the White House this summer, once Republican-run election “audits” in Arizona and elsewhere establish that he was cheated in November. (He was not.)

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It’s still not entirely clear what Trump believes, or to what extent his latest absurdity is a desperate plea for media attention; among his fans, it’s not apparent how many people really want a coup. As we have seen, however, the line between pretend and real rebellion in the United States is dangerously thin. Even if Trump wants mostly to mess with journalists, the logical endpoint of the deranged fantasy he’s stoking is a country where journalists are silenced, unable to talk even with their families. Fenster is a reminder of that.

Below, more on Myanmar and press freedom around the world:

  • Myanmar, I: In February, shortly after the coup, E. Tammy Kim spoke, for CJR, with Swe Win, who runs Myanmar Now, an independent news site, from exile. In March, Kyaw Hsan Hlaing and Emily Fishbein reported for CJR on an intensifying crackdown on Myanmar’s press, including Myanmar Now, whose newsroom was raided and had its license revoked. In April, Joshua Carroll and Tin Htet Paing wrote, also for CJR, about criticism of a reporting trip that CNN made to Myanmar with the junta’s permission. At least eleven people were arrested after speaking to a CNN reporter.
  • Myanmar, II: Last week, Frontier Myanmar, Fenster’s employer, tracked the emergence of hyperlocal news outlets that sprung up after the junta laid waste to Myanmar’s existing independent media. “Some of these small, nimble outlets are run by experienced journalists and offer miniature versions of conventional news articles on websites and Facebook pages,” Frontier reported. “However, many more have been started by untrained youth, who stick to social media and blur the lines between journalism and activism. As well as documenting events, they tip local residents off to police and army clampdowns, and also help to coordinate protests and fundraising for striking government workers in the Civil Disobedience Movement—a kind of community media tailored to the post-coup times.”
  • Nicaragua: On Wednesday, police in Nicaragua arrested Cristiana Chamorro, an opposition leader who is seeking to face President Daniel Ortega in a November election. According to CPJ, officials summoned at least sixteen journalists as witnesses in a money-laundering investigation targeting Chamorro; one of the journalists, María Lilly Delgado, a freelancer for Univision, has since been told that she, too, is now under investigation, though she hasn’t been told why. Officials also recently raided the offices of Confidencial, a news site run by Chamorro’s brother.
  • Israel: Early yesterday, unidentified gunmen shot at the house and car of Hassan Shelan, an Arab Israeli journalist who covers Arab affairs for Ynet, a site owned by the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot. No one was hurt in the shooting, though Shelan said that bullets entered his children’s bedroom and only narrowly missed them. “These criminals wanted to send a message: that we should shut up,” Shelan told Ynet. “They don’t want us to write about what is happening in the Arab community.” CPJ has more.


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Donald Trump shuts down his blog

This post has been updated to clarify a reference to Entercom.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.