A military court in Myanmar has sentenced Toru Kubota, a freelance Japanese filmmaker who filmed a protest in the city of Yangon in late July, to seven years in jail.
Kubota, 26, was handed a three-year prison sentence on Wednesday for sedition and a seven-year prison sentence for electronic communications-related violations, according to Tetsuo Kitada, deputy chief of mission of the Japanese embassy. Kubota will serve the two sentences concurrently, meaning he will spend a total of seven years in prison.
An electronic communications-related violation – activities that cause unrest, such as spreading false or provocative information online – usually carries seven to 15 years in prison and is frequently cited against journalists and dissidents, who are usually handed a three-year prison sentence.
A source cited by Kyodo News claimed that Kubota received his sentencing in a court inside Yangon’s infamous Insein Prison for political prisoners. The Japanese filmmaker is also waiting for an upcoming trial for charges relating to breaking an immigration law, which is scheduled for Oct. 12.
Kubota, who entered Myanmar amid the military coup through Thailand on a tourist visa, was detained on July 30 after filming an anti-junta protest in Yangon. He was charged at the time with violating an immigration law and promoting dissent against the junta.
The Myanmar military claimed that Kubota took part in the protest and communicated with the protesters while he was filming.
“We have been asking Myanmar authorities for Mr. Kubota’s early release, and we intend to keep on doing so,” a Japanese foreign ministry official said on Thursday.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned Kubota’s sentencing in a statement on Thursday and called for the filmmaker’s immediate release.
“The harsh prison sentence against Japanese journalist Toru Kubota is outrageous, and he must be released immediately,” Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator in Frankfurt, Germany, said. “Journalists are not criminals. Myanmar’s junta should not be fearful of journalists by locking them up.”
Kubota, who graduated from Tokyo’s Keio University with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and obtained his master’s degree in Documentary Film from University of the Arts London, has worked with several online publications, including the BBC, Vice Japan and Al Jazeera English.
His work typically covers immigrants, refugee issues and ethnic conflicts, including the Rohingya Muslim persecution. In March, the U.S. government officially recognized the Myanmar military’s violence against the Rohingya people as genocide.
Kubota is the fifth foreign journalist who the Myanmar junta has detained ever since February 2021. After the coup that led to the arrest of Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the military has reportedly made at least 12 media outlets close down and has arrested at least 142 journalists, with 57 of them still imprisoned.
Yuki Kitazumi, another Japanese freelancer, was also arrested in Myanmar in April 2021. However, he was freed and returned to Japan within a month.
According to CPJ’s 2021 census of imprisoned journalists, Myanmar ranked as the “second-worst jailer of journalists.”