Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns Japanese documentary filmmaker Toru Kubota’s arrest shortly after covering an anti-government protest in Myanmar on 30 July and calls for his immediate release, along with the release of all the other journalists currently detained in Myanmar.

The fifth foreign journalist to be detained in Myanmar since the military coup in February 2021, Turo Kubota, 26, had just covered a flash mob protest in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, when plainclothes police arrested him along with at least two Burmese citizens. 

He is now facing a possible combined sentence of seven years in prison after being charged under penal code section 505 (a), which penalises the publication or circulation of any false statement, rumour or report, and under immigration law section 13-1, which punishes entering the country illegally.

“Arresting a journalist just for covering a protest is unacceptable and is yet further evidence of the Myanmar authorities’ complete contempt for journalism,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “We urge Japanese foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi to do everything possible to obtain Toru Kubota’s release and to intercede on behalf of the 68 Burmese journalists who currently detained.”

Harassment

After his arrest, a photo circulated on Myanmar social media showing Kubota and three other people holding a banner, which would seem to suggest he was an active participant in the anti-government demonstration. But Yuki Kitazumi, a Japanese journalist who was jailed for a month in Myanmar last year, told RSF he suspected that the photo was staged by the authorities after the event.

“To me, this photo seems to have been taken under duress, after his arrest,” Kitazumi said. “For fear of reprisals, this kind of flash mob protest never lasts more than a minute, and no one has time to pose for a photo. Furthermore, the scene does not correspond to the place where the protest took place.”

The authorities reportedly placed Kubota under surveillance shortly after he arrived in Myanmar to film for his next documentary. Colleagues says soldiers went to his hotel on 21 July and inspected his room and his passport.

Sensitive subjects

Kubota often works with Japanese and international media such as Yahoo! News Japan, VICE Japan and Al Jazeera English. He focuses on marginalised communities, as seen in his reports on poverty in Tokyo during the Covid pandemic. 

In the course of his ten or so visits to Myanmar, he has taken a particular interest in the sensitive issue of ethnic groups and his first documentary, in 2014, was about the Rohingyas, the mainly Muslim minority in the west of the country that was the victim of a massacre orchestrated by the military in 2017.

Kubota is the only foreigner among the total of 69 journalists currently detained in Myanmar. Four other foreign journalists have been jailed since the coup but they were all later released and deported. In addition to Kitazumi, they were the US journalists Nathan Maung and Danny Fenster and the Polish photographer Robert Bociaga.

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