Japanese reporter didn’t libel president: court

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Japanese reporter didn’t libel president: court

The Seoul Central District Court on Thursday acquitted a Japanese reporter accused of defaming Korean President Park Geun-hye in an article published last year that questioned her whereabouts on the day of a ferry disaster.

Tatsuya Kato, the 49-year-old former Seoul bureau chief of Japan’s Sankei Shimbun, was charged in October 2014 with defaming Park, after he reported in August that she went missing during the Sewol ferry disaster of April 2014 for seven hours and had been spending time with a man.

The court acknowledged that Kato had negligently reported rumors about Park while knowing they were false.

However, it said that criticism of the president, a public figure, and questioning his or her whereabouts is guaranteed under the “domain of the freedom of press in society.”

The court added that Kato wrote the article with the motive of informing the Japanese people of the political situation of a neighboring country out of “public interest,” which is why it was handing down a verdict of not guilty.

Korean prosecutors requested an 18-month prison sentence for Kato.

But there was unease domestically and internationally that Kato’s indictment curtailed a journalist’s right to the freedom of speech.

Kato wrote in an Aug. 3 online report that the president was missing for seven hours on April 16, 2014, the day the Sewol ferry sank, and alleged that she was secretly meeting a recently divorced former aide.

It cited sources that included a column in a major conservative daily, the Chosun Ilbo, and unidentified sources in Korea’s financial industry.

A conservative group filed a suit in August that year, which eventually led the prosecution to launch an investigation into the case, and prosecutors have stood firm that the article was defamatory and spread misinformation.

The issue was also a sore spot in bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo over the past year, officials here said.

The Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Thursday that it conveyed the Japanese government’s repeated request for clemency in Kato’s case to Korea’s Justice Ministry.

“Multiple Japanese government officials have said that this case has been an impediment to bilateral relations,” a senior foreign affairs official said on Thursday. “However, we have also conveyed to the Japanese government that such false reports will not be tolerated in the future.”

After news of the acquittal spread, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo, “I look forward to this having a positive effect on Korea-Japan relations.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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