Though Chicago is 8,000 miles from Myanmar, some stories of global import hit very close to home for me. Here in the Windy City, I sponsor interns from Columbia College Chicago, a largely unsung school that has produced its share of media heavies–including two Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalists, Pablo Martinez Monsivais and Ozier Muhammad.
So it was with some relief that I learned of Danny Fenster’s release after half a year in prison at the hands of Myanmar’s brutal military junta. Danny graduated Columbia College in 2009, a year I advised the student paper at Loyola University Chicago. Odds are excellent we crossed paths at an Illinois College Press Association shindig, where Columbia students turned out in droves. Danny may have even sat in class when I guest lectured at his school.
Columbia College Chicago—an institution I love and celebrate—should be proud that Fenster endured what he did. His “crimes,” which I hesitate to list because they’re the stuff of kangaroo courts and evil authoritarians, were “spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulations,” according to AP. The sentence? Eleven years hard labor.
Fenster, who worked for the news and business magazine Frontier Myanmar, reported that had not been starved or beaten. But looking down the barrel at a decade-plus of imprisonment doesn’t do much for one’s anxiety. What’s more, he believes he caught COVID-19 behind bars.
Who will tell the people? Why, young people
“Any bitter, ill will, regret, anger spilled out on the tarmac when I got on that plane,” Fenster told reporters when he landed in New York. I wish I had that much class or capacity to forgive and forget. Because it’s hard to be very much lovey-dovey-thy-neighbor while the media’s troubles in Myanmar rage unabated.
More than 100 journalists and media officials have been detained in Myanmar since February, when the military overthrew the elected government. That includes more than 50 reporters, according to the New York Times. Exact numbers are elusive, what with secrecy and intimidation surrounding the roundup.
But there is at least some cold comfort in the palms of our hands. The Times also notes that young people have stepped in with their smartphones to help document the brutality where journalists cannot. In a manner similar to how 17-year-old Darnella Frazier caught the murder of George Floyd, these Myanmar youth are bearing witness—and in fact, our fast-improving phone cameras are making eyewitnesses of us all.
Myanmar (hearts) ‘fake news’
Why is this important? Because back in the good ol’ USA, we’ve had to endure the coinage of an insidious term, “fake news,” by a certain ex-reality TV show celebrity. Were the evil despots of the world watching and trading high fives? Damn straight. Vladimir Putin, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and the Chinese government have used the distrust of media manufactured here to finger-point at us and perpetrate any number of oppressive measures against their own media leaders.
Half a world away—and just this past week, in fact—a key player in Myanmar’s military junta called reports of indiscriminate torture “fake news.” Donald Trump’s exact words were his exact words. Even when the photos proved the allegations. He was speaking to the Western media, a near unheard-of event, as part of a dog-and-pony show arranged to trumpet Fenster’s release as an act of goodwill. Myanmar’s state-run outlet, Myawaddy TV, called Fenster’s amnesty a “humanitarian” gesture. I should say. More heartwarming than watching Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.
It’s too soon to see how Fenster will or can speak out on behalf of his colleagues: They are, after all, in grave danger still. Nor is it any where near wise to expect that Myanmar will set other media prisoners free. Many of these people had lots to say about how the military moved swiftly to reverse the results of a lopsided election supporting a democratically elected government. As Times reporter Richard C. Paddock wrote:
Ten days after seizing power in Myanmar, the generals issued their first command to journalists: Stop using the words “coup,” “regime” and “junta” to describe the military’s takeover of the government. Few reporters heeded the Orwellian directive, and the junta embraced a new goal—crushing all free expression.
Qwoted’s attempted coup of a far different sort
It is my hope, naive as it may sound, that Qwoted’s ever-growing network of journalists worldwide can create something resembling a cross between a daisy chain and a lifeline. To be sure, reporters in hiding are continuing the work of those silenced by the Myanmar regime. As professional networks grow, the connection to vital resources and information outlets does as well.
In the meantime, we must not treat the events in Myanmar as some aberration with ripples that cannot affect us here. First, what happens in one part of the world, where violence and oppression are concerned, affects us all.
But as we’ve also witnessed with increasing frequency in this nation, truth-telling journalists in TV, print and radio are paying dearly for their bravery. And in this case, the irrational venom is coming not so much from governments as from everyday people and egomaniacal talking heads.
This is not hyperbole–not when my journalistic mentor, whose parents survived Nazi concentration camps, received death threats for comparing the former president’s support of white supremacist groups to the behavior of Adolph Hitler. Then there’s Fox’s Tucker Carlson (a.k.a. Tucker Swanson Carlson, stepson of a fast-food heiress and hence “The Hungry Man”). He put an NBC journalist’s life at risk when he turned the inflammatory comments of a former Trump speechwriter into an echo chamber for antagonistic, false rants.
In case anyone with a loaded gun and half a brain missed the point, Carlson showed her picture on air. And the death threats came. Not that Swanson Calrson issued any more of an apology than censured Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona for depicting his murder of Democrat colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Not a single Republican supported the censure, save two. Wha?
In tolerating violence, threats and oppression or any kind, we are better than this and smarter than this. If we all embrace the smart roles we can play in defense of the media and those who write the first drafts of history, then we perform a service almost as great as those carried out by the reporters themselves.
I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving wherever you are and submit we raise a toast to Danny Fenster: home just in time for the holidays. That other journalists behind bars are allowed as much is my first Christmas wish.
February 14, 2023