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CLARENCE PAGE: American reporter detained in Myanmar for committing journalism
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CLARENCE PAGE: American reporter detained in Myanmar for committing journalism

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He was so close.

Danny Fenster was about to board a plane in Myanmar on May 24 to return home to Michigan.

Instead he was detained at Yangon International Airport, apparently for — as one of his former teachers at Columbia College in Chicago aptly tweeted — “performing acts of journalism.”

I say “apparently” because the military government that took over Myanmar during a coup in February simply hasn’t said why they took Fenster, 37, into custody.

That’s not unusual for this junta. In the country that the United States government still calls Burma, Myanmar’s military regime holds dozens of journalists behind bars, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, PEN America and the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, a Burmese rights group.

Full disclosure, I’m a member of CPJ’s board, but this case jumped out at me because of Fenster’s connection to my beloved home base of Chicago. It also stood out because most of CPJ’s cases involve countries that have a lot fewer press freedoms than our constitution protects.

Cases such as Fenster’s remind me of how since-retired Tribune photographer Ernie Cox was detained by South Africa’s old apartheid government when we were there in 1976, the summer of the Soweto uprising. At least we had some leverage as journalists from a country that the white-minority government was trying to impress.

The Johannesburg cops let Ernie and his camera go with what almost sounded like an apology. Myanmar is not like that.

In Myanmar, the arrests of journalists has widened to include foreign journalists, including Fenster, managing editor of the Frontier Myanmar news site, and fellow U.S. citizen Nathan Maung, a co-founder of the local news website Kamayut Media.

At least Maung has been formally charged with something: Article 505(a) of the penal code, which punishes the dissemination of information or “fake news” that could agitate or cause security forces or officials to mutiny, Maung’s family told CPJ.

This, remember, comes from a government that seized power in February after ousting elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who herself had been widely criticized for being too soft on atrocities committed by the military. Now she faces charges by the rogue military government that she apparently failed to appease.

That brings no comfort to Fenster’s family or friends back home in Michigan. “You know, my wife cries, I pace, nobody sleeps,” Danny’s father, Buddy Fenster, told me in a telephone interview from the family’s home in Huntington Woods, a Detroit suburb.

“Fifteen days and we haven’t been able to get to step one with that country,” he said, referring to the rules of the Geneva Conventions that the coup government has defied by withholding information and access by American consular officials.

“For one thing, he’s been imprisoned for no reason. No charges. No information at all. They just rounded up journalists,” he said. “They’re just really ignoring our overtures to try to get this thing resolved and cleaned up quickly.”

Worse, he and Maung reportedly are being held in Insein Prison, a notorious hellhole for political prisoners, including journalists.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said the arrests of Fenster and Maung were of “deep concern,” and urged that they be freed and allowed to return home to their families.

Danny’s friends and family are trying to call attention to his case with T-shirts and a MoveOn.org petition that was coming close to its goal of 40,000 signatures. I won’t discourage you from adding your name.

Adding to the senselessness of his detention, his hiring preceded the coup and his job was mainly managing and editing, his family says. When other journalists left the country or went anonymous, he apparently saw no reason to follow them.

“He felt he was under the radar,” his dad recalled. “He wasn’t doing any hardcore reporting. But over there, you don’t need proof, you just need to be arrested.”

Email Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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