Dealing with defamation

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Dealing with defamation

South Korean prosecutors indicted Tatsuya Kato, the former Seoul bureau chief of Japan’s Sankei Shimbun, on charges of defaming South Korean President Park Geun-hye through a report based on “false information.” Kato, who was transferred out of his bureau chief position on Oct. 1, is barred from leaving the country during questioning, although he has not been arrested. The prosecution said indictment was inevitable because the report clearly hurt the president’s reputation, and defamation was a crime for which even the foreign press could not be pardoned.

The Japanese government, press and politicians criticized the decision as a violation of freedom of the press. “[The indictment] is extremely regrettable in light of freedom of the press and relations between Japan and South Korea,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a regular conference. The move by the prosecution comes at a time when the relationship between Seoul and Tokyo is at its worst due to a series of diplomatic spats since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office. The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) said it was disgraceful that the international press is raising questions about freedom of the press in Korea.

The conservative Sankei Shimbun, however, caused the mishap. Kato, citing rumors in the financial market, indicated the unmarried president may have been meeting a recently divorced man on the day of the Sewol ferry disaster. The newspaper ran the account without bothering to check the validity of the content. Moreover, the paper did not correct the report nor issue an apology. Kato and the paper were previously the source of ire among South Koreans for their subjective nationalist views.

Defamation cases depend on the falsity of the report, the defendant’s efforts to check its validity and the purpose behind the slander. A simple libel case can be clarified in court. But the victim was the president this time and the slanderer a foreign reporter. It is rare for a foreign reporter to be indicted on defamation charges. The decision is controversial in terms of customs and legal practice.

Most mainstream Japanese media report based on objective facts and views. They may be angered that one of theirs has been indicted by the Korean prosecution. But the prosecution must also check the Sankei for publishing slanderous and sensational reports.

The case must not further hurt diplomatic ties between the two countries. We do sincerely hope it will end peacefully - through a sincere apology on Sankei’s part.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 11, Page 30

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