TOKYO -- Friends of Toru Kubota, a Japanese journalist detained in military-ruled Myanmar while covering a protest, called for his immediate release Wednesday and an online petition has collected more than 41,000 signatures.
The documentary filmmaker was arrested Saturday in Yangon by plainclothes security forces while taking photos of about a dozen protesters, according to his supporters and a witness who spoke with The Associated Press.
The Japanese government, which has condemned human rights violations in Myanmar, confirmed a Japanese in his 20s was detained. It says it’s working for his release.
A report by Japanese public broadcaster NHK quoted a spokesman for the military government as confirming Kubota was in custody and under investigation, while saying his release remains uncertain.
Myanmar’s army seized power in February last year by ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, and has cracked down on dissent, killing and arresting thousands of people. Most of the more than 50 journalists detained in Myanmar face charges of causing fear, spreading false news or agitating against a government employee, which carry penalties of up to three years in prison.
Kubota’s films focused on giving a voice to the downtrodden, such as the plight of Rohingya refugees and the poor in Tokyo amid the coronavirus pandemic.
A graduate of the prestigious Keio University with a master’s from the University of the Arts London, Kubota, 26, also did work for Yahoo! News Japan, Vice Japan and Al Jazeera English.
“I want to be as free as possible, and that’s why I make documentary films,” he says on his Twitter profile.
In his last tweet, sent late last month from Myanmar, he says: “How insensitive and ignorant I am not to really know that person on the other side of my camera until the tears start to flow. And the tears keep coming.”
His friends said he had gone alone and was working on a documentary film about that individual. Other details were not disclosed for safety concerns.
Nikki Tsukamoto Kininmouth, who worked with Kubota on a film, said he had tried to document everyday people’s lives.
“He’s simply really a nice guy,” she told reporters at the Japan Press Club in Tokyo. “He is loved by so many people.”
Earlier this week, PEN International and the Japan PEN Club called for Kubota’s immediate and unconditional release, along with others unjustly detained.
“We call for freedom of expression and the protection of journalists in Myanmar and abroad. And we urge the Japanese government and the international community to take immediate action to ensure the safety of Mr. Kubota,” Japan PEN President Natsuo Kirino said in a statement.
Kubota is the fifth foreign journalist detained in Myanmar, after U.S. citizens Nathan Maung and Danny Fenster, who worked for local publications, and freelancers Robert Bociaga of Poland and Yuki Kitazumi of Japan. They were eventually expelled.
Kitazumi, who was among those calling for Kubota’s release, said he was worried about his safety because he felt the situation in Myanmar had worsened. Kitazumi was set free after a month.
“He knew about the risks. But he decided to go,” Kitazumi said.
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter https://twitter.com/yurikageyama
Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.