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S. Korea court acquits Japanese reporter of defamation

December 17, 2015

A South Korean court acquitted a Japanese journalist of defamation charges against South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Japan said the ruling would lead to better ties between the two countries.

Tatsuya Kato
Image: Reuters/K. Hong-Ji

A Japanese journalist indicted in October 2014 for spreading false information about South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been cleared of the charges against him. Tatsuya Kato had claimed that the president had been absent for seven hours during a deadly ferry disaster in 2014 that killed more than 300 people.

The former Seoul bureau chief of Japan's "Sankei Shimbun" newspaper had reported that Park had chosen to spend her time with a former adviser instead. Park's office denied the allegations.

The case raised questions about freedom of the press and free speech in South Korea and also threatened to aggravate relations between South Korea and Japan.

Seoul Central District Court spokesman Joon Young Maeng said prosecutors had one week to file an appeal.

Where was Park?

The South Korean government had alleged that Kato's report had no foundation and that it only served to damage the president's honor. Prosecutors sought an 18-month prison sentence for Kato.

But South Korean media also started to question Park's whereabouts on the day of the Sewol ferry sinking in April 2014. Her government also came under considerable criticism for the botched rescue operation that followed.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye
South Korean President Park Geun-hye denies the allegations against herImage: Reuters/J. Silva

The case drew criticism from human rights organizations that said Park appeared to abuse the legal system to stifle political opposition and to limit freedom of the press.

"The court views the conduct of the defendant was in the realm of freedom of the press," Judge Lee Dong-geun said. "It is difficult to conclude that the defendant intended to defame the president or libel her as a public figure."

Strained relations

South Korea's Foreign Ministry had intervened in the case, asking the Justice Ministry to consider a request for leniency submitted by the Japanese government based on recent efforts between the two countries to improve relations.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries have been at a deadlock, with South Korea accusing Japan of being unapologetic for its colonial past, in particular with regard to the issue of Korean "comfort women," as sex workers forced to work in Japanese military brothels were known as during World War Two.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed the ruling, saying it would help improve ties between the two nationsImage: Reuters/I. Kato

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed the court's not-guilty ruling, saying that it would result in improved relations between the two states.

"I appreciate the not-guilty ruling. I expect that it will have a positive effect on the Japan-South Korean relationship," Abe told reporters.

ss/sms (AP, Reuters)