SEOUL – South Korean prosecutors on Wednesday indicted a Japanese journalist on charges he defamed President Park Geun-hye by reporting rumors that she was absent for seven hours during the April ferry disaster because she was with a man, according to his newspaper and the Japanese government.
An investigation that lasted weeks into the former Seoul bureau chief of the right-leaning Sankei Shimbun has raised questions about South Korea’s press freedoms. Critics say the conservative Park has clamped down on journalists in an attempt to control her image.
The indictment also comes amid diplomatic animosity between Tokyo and Seoul. South Korea sees a growing nationalist tilt in Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who just bulldozed a contentious secrecy law that targets journalists through the legislature, and continues to stew over Tokyo’s perceived refusal to show sincere responsibility for its brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from its 1910 annexation till its defeat in World War II.
The Sankei Shimbun is reviled by some in South Korea for its right-wing positions.
Journalist Tatsuya Kato, 48, had been banned from leaving the country during the investigation. During that time, the daily decided on Oct. 1 to remove Kato as bureau chief and move him to a different section.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted prosecutors as saying they questioned Kato three times and charged him because they concluded his report was false. It said Kato was indicted without detention.
The indictment is linked to an article Kato posted online Aug. 3 about Park’s whereabouts on the day the ferry Sewol sank, killing more than 300 people, most of them teenagers on a school trip.Park and her government have been criticized for the botched rescue operation, and some domestic media outlets questioned whether she went unaccounted for on the day of the disaster.
The headline of the report, which cited financial industry rumors, parliamentary debates and the Chosun Ilbo, the South’s leading conservative newspaper, said: “President Park Geun-hye was missing on the day the passenger ship sank. Who was she meeting?”
The article repeated rumors in South Korean media and the financial industry “about a relationship between the president and a man” who is said to be married. Other reports suggested he was a recently divorced former aide.
Yonhap quoted prosecutors as saying Kato was indicted because his article “defamed (Park’s) reputation by indicating without any proof that the female president had improper relations (with an unidentified man).” The presidential office said Park “was inside the presidential compound” during the time in question, Yonhap said.
In Tokyo on Thursday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga slammed Kato’s indictment, saying the decision “deviates far from the common sense of international society.”
“It’s extremely regrettable from the viewpoint of freedom of the press and (effects on) the Japan-South Korean relationship,” Suga said at a regular news conference. “By the end of today we’d like to confirm the details of the facts and deliver our concerns to South Korea,” Suga said.
Abe has long called on Park to hold a summit to improve bilateral ties, but Park has refused to respond. Asked if the indictment will affect Abe’s approach toward Park, Suga said the push for a summit will remain unchanged.
“Our position is that (they) should meet because there are some problems (between the countries). That won’t be changed,” Suga said.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida also expressed concern with the indictment, while Sankei President Takamitsu Kumasaka demanded it be retracted as soon as possible.
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