Danny Fenster in a maroon hat

Wayne State celebrates the release of Danny Fenster (M.A., 2016)

Danny Fenster, a journalist and Wayne State University alumnus, was recently released from a jail in Myanmar after being unjustly detained for almost six months—his sudden release a welcome surprise since he had been sentenced to eleven years in prison only three days earlier.

Mr. Fenster’s story has received a great deal of national and international attention, and with this spotlight the Department of English at Wayne State celebrates both his release and his accomplishments as a journalist.

Mr. Fenster received his Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Wayne State in 2016, and he contributed to the life of the department as a student, a Graduate Student Assistant, and a part-time faculty member. Dr. Thomas Trimble (Associate Professor of Teaching) recalled that Mr. Fenster’s journalistic vocation was already evident when he took the teaching practicum, a seminar designed to help graduate students learn how to teach freshman composition.

Mr. Fenster already had a talent for writing, but he wanted to learn how to share his knowledge with his own students. Dr. Trimble believed that Mr. Fenster’s strength as a new teacher was his interest in the vocation of writing and what writing can do. Donovan Hohn (professor of English) similarly recognized Mr. Fenster’s aptitude for writing, and he noted in a recent interview that “he brought to his nonfiction the research skills and ethical commitments of a trained journalist but combined them with a deep sensitivity to the art and craft of prose.”

After Mr. Fenster graduated from Wayne State in 2016, he worked for news outlets in both Detroit and Louisiana before relocating to Myanmar. As Professor Hohn recounted, Mr. Fenster also worked closely with him in 2017 on a memorable project for The New Yorker with a five-week turnaround. The focus of this piece was the Mississippi River, and Professor Hohn asked Mr. Fenster to join him as his research assistant in order to speed up the writing process.

At the time, Mr. Fenster was visiting friends in Georgia, so Professor Hohn flew to Atlanta. Mr. Fenster picked him up in his van, and they drove together to Clarksdale, Mississippi. They worked together for a few days conducting interviews and gathering research. The story ended up not being finished in time, but Professor Hohn persuaded an editor at The New Yorker to hire Mr. Fenster as a freelance fact-checker.

Yet as Professor Hohn notes, Mr. Fenster is “a seeker,” and soon he was on the move again, this time to Myanmar. Beginning in 2018, Mr. Fenster worked for three of the top English-language news organizations there, serving as a copy editor and reporter for Myanmar Now (2019-2020) and as a managing editor for Frontier Myanmar Magazine (2020-2021). Yet even as Mr. Fenster pursued a thriving career as a journalist, the political situation in Myanmar deteriorated.

On February 1, 2021, Parliament was set to hold its first session since their tense elections last year, when The National League for Democracy won a vast majority of the body’s seats. Refusing to accept the results of that election, the military carried out a coup and took over the Myanmar government rather than letting Parliament seat itself.

On May 24, 2021, Mr. Fenster was preparing to board a plane homeward to Detroit at Yangon International Airport when he was arrested for sedition. Although the reasons for Mr. Fenster’s arrest were never fully explained, his detention seems to have been linked to his time at Myanmar Now as a copy editor and reporter. Mr. Fenster had resigned from this position and joined the staff of Frontier Myanmar nearly a year before he was arrested. He was immediately taken to Insein prison, which is infamous for its poor living conditions and mistreatment of prisoners.

At some point earlier this year, COVID-19 swept through the prison, and Mr. Fenster is assumed to have caught it. He lost his senses of taste and smell, had chest congestion, and other symptoms, but he was never tested and has since recovered. During his imprisonment, he was additionally charged with unlawful association and violating immigration law. On August 30, 2021, Mr. Fenster received the 2021 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award, which honors journalists who shed light on the truth at great personal cost.  

In a closed hearing this November, Mr. Fenster was found guilty of three charges and given the maximum sentence possible of 11 years. This harsh sentencing signaled that the military would not give into pressure from the United States and other countries and served to intimidate other journalists in Myanmar. Yet mere days after his conviction, Mr. Fenster was unexpectedly freed on “humanitarian grounds,” as stated on the military’s Facebook page. He was released to the custody of former United States diplomat, Bill Richardson, who had laid the groundwork for his release.

At a short press conference held after his return to the United States, Mr. Fenster stated, “I'm going to take time to celebrate, I'm going to spend time with my family, and then, you know, continue concentrating on all the other—not just journalists—prisoners of conscience in Myanmar and everywhere else, but for me in Myanmar, a lot of citizens, doctors, teachers that are in prison right now. . . . This will be a short little celebration, but let's keep focused on what the actual story is here.”

As these comments indicate, Mr. Fenster is far from the only journalist in Myanmar who has been imprisoned. The military has detained many protestors, filmmakers, activists, and journalists who have spoken out against their cause. Over 7,000 people have been arrested, many without evidence, and over 1,000 people have been killed since the coup occurred.  

Mr. Fenster’s concern for those who are still imprisoned in Myanmar reveals his commitment to the journalistic ideals that have guided him throughout his career. As Professor Hohn observed in a recent interview, Mr. Fenster is “devoted to the journalist’s calling of witness,” and that is why the Department of English joins the rest of the world in rejoicing at Danny Fenster’s safe return home.

We also celebrate his accomplishments since graduating in 2016, believing with Dr. Trimble that “our students should know Danny’s story” because it provides a striking illustration of the ways that Wayne State alumni make a difference in the world. The Department of English at Wayne State is honored to be able to say that Mr. Fenster is an alumnus of our graduate program, and we look forward to all that he will do next.  

– Ashley Asimakopoulos