politics

‘I Just Won't Sleep Until He's Home Safe' — Family of Journalist Imprisoned in Myanmar Fights for His Release

Reuters
  • The military regime that recently seized power in Myanmar has stonewalled virtually all efforts to reach Danny Fenster, a U.S. journalist who has been detained there without explanation for more than a week.
  • Fenster's relatives have been communicating with U.S. officials, speaking to media outlets and, most recently, launching a petition and website to raise awareness and push for his immediate and unconditional release.
  • It's unknown whether Fenster faces charges, and U.S. consular officials have not been allowed to contact him directly.

The military regime that recently seized power in Myanmar has stonewalled virtually all efforts to reach Danny Fenster, a U.S. journalist who has been detained there without explanation for more than a week.

His family wants him to know they're doing everything they can.

Facing silence from Myanmar authorities, Fenster's relatives have been communicating with U.S. officials, speaking to media outlets and, most recently, launching a petition and website to raise awareness and push for his immediate and unconditional release.

"He probably has no idea about this effort that's happening for him," Bryan Fenster, Danny's older brother, told CNBC in a phone interview Tuesday. "This is the worst imaginable situation, but we're incredibly proud of him and he's a hero to a lot of people."

"My heart is aching for all the families that have ever gone through anything like this," said Danny's mother, Rose Fenster, who was also on the call. "But as a mom, and him being my son, I just won't sleep until he's home safe."

Danny Fenster, a 37-year-old Michigan native and managing editor of the news magazine Frontier Myanmar, was detained May 24 at Yangon International Airport before he could board a plane to Kuala Lumpur.

His family says he was on his way home to the Detroit-area city of Huntington Woods to surprise them after more than three years away. But there's little else they know about why Danny was arrested and transferred to Yangon's Insein Prison, reportedly a notoriously harsh compound with a long history of housing political prisoners.

It's unknown whether Fenster faces charges, and neither his magazine nor U.S. officials have been able to contact him directly.

"That's the hardest part," Bryan Fenster said. "We're going on Day 9, and they have yet to reply."

He said that when he first heard about his brother's detention, "I remember thinking, 'Oh, my God, where do you even start?'"

"I went into fight mode pretty quickly," Bryan Fenster said. "One or two quick breaths of panic but we just got to business."

"I think I stopped breathing," Rose Fenster said of her own reaction, calling it a "total out-of-body experience" that was "visceral" and "gut-wrenching."

But she said she took solace in "knowing that I have my son Bryan and other close family working on this," along with support from the community, which has been "just holding us up."

That work includes a just-launched website that directs visitors to help raise awareness by sharing information on social media and signing a MoveOn.org petition, which on Tuesday had more than 20,000 signatures.

Managing editor for Frontier Myanmar Danny Fenster is pictured in this undated handout obtained May 25, 2021. The 37-year-old American is currently detained in Myanmar.
Reuters
Managing editor for Frontier Myanmar Danny Fenster is pictured in this undated handout obtained May 25, 2021. The 37-year-old American is currently detained in Myanmar.

The family is also selling T-shirts featuring the hashtag #BringDannyHome and a call to "Protect The Press." The family said they plan to let Danny Fenster decide where to donate those proceeds once he is freed.

They also said they are speaking multiple times daily with Fenster's wife, who is in Myanmar.

Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., told CNBC in an interview that the government has confirmed Danny Fenster's transfer to Insein, though consular access to him — a requirement under Vienna Convention rules — has still not been provided.

Levin, who represents the congressional district where Fenster's family lives, authored the House resolution condemning the coup that took place in Myanmar in February. Levin is a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and vice chair of the subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia, and Nonproliferation.

The day after the arrest was announced, Levin led all 16 members of his state's delegation in a letter urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken to get Fenster freed.

"It's very, very personal to me," said Levin, adding that he and Danny and Bryan Fenster attended the same high school.

In a statement Tuesday, a State Department spokesperson told CNBC that it has pressed Myanmar to "release him immediately and will continue to do so until he is allowed to return home safely to his family."

"Free and independent media is indispensable to building prosperous, resilient, and free societies. The detention of Daniel, as well as arrest and use of violence by the Burmese military against other journalists, constitutes an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression in Burma," the statement said.

The Myanmar embassy in Washington did not respond to CNBC's request for comment on Fenster's detention.

Fenster is not the only American journalist being held at Insein Prison: Authorities in March arrested U.S. citizen Nathan Maung of online news site Kamayut Media, along with his co-founder, Hanthar Nyein.

Correction: This article was updated to reflect that the Myanmar embassy in Washington did not respond to CNBC's request for comment.

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