SEOUL - The Seoul Central District Court cleared a Japanese journalist on Thursday of defaming the South Korean president in a case that raised new questions about media freedom and had threatened to inflame relations between the uneasy neighbors.
Tatsuya Kato, former Seoul bureau chief of Japan’s Sankei Shimbun newspaper, was indicted in October last year when prosecutors said a report he wrote in August over President Park Geun-hye’s whereabouts during a ferry disaster was based on false information, had no foundation and damaged her honor.
Kato, 49, pleaded not guilty to the defamation charge.
“The court views the conduct of the defendant was in the realm of freedom of the press,” Judge Lee Dong-geun said at the conclusion of a three-hour hearing, speaking for a three-judge panel.
“It is difficult to conclude that the defendant intended to defame the president or libel her as a public figure.”
Prosecutors had sought an 18-month prison term.
The case drew criticism from media and human rights watchdogs over Park’s stance on freedom of the press and fueled worry that the legal system could be used to stifle political opposition.
“It is a natural decision,” Kato told reporters after the ruling, adding that he hopes the prosecutors will not appeal.
Kato had remained free during the months-long proceedings. A ban on him traveling overseas was lifted in April.
Kato’s lawyers argued that the article was not intended to be defamatory, saying the defendant thought he must report about the spread of the rumors as there is interest in Japan about the South Korean president’s moves.
But after the presiding judge said at a hearing in March this year that the rumors were false, the Sankei Shimbun ran a note by Kato saying he did not intend to argue against this point.
South Korea’s foreign ministry had asked the court to consider Japan’s request for leniency, given the countries’ recent efforts to improve ties.
Relations between the neighbors are strained over what South Korea sees as Japanese leaders’ reluctance to properly atone for the country’s colonial wartime past, especially over the issue of Korean “comfort women,” who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II.
The verdict came amid a politically charged debate over a decision by Park’s government to remove privately published textbooks from schools and replace them with a government-issued version.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday he “appreciates” the South Korean court ruling.
“I would like to hope that it will have a positive impact on relations between Japan and South Korea,” he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Asia division for Human Rights Watch, said, “Human Rights Watch opposes criminal defamation as a matter of principle all around the world. It’s a relief that journalist Tatsuya Kato was not sent to prison, but that doesn’t change the fact that South Korea’s criminal defamation law is problematic because it stifles a free press, has a chilling effect on freedom of expression, and works against the public interest by gagging critics and whistle blowers.”
“The South Korea government should immediately repeal its criminal defamation law so that in the future, other journalists reporting on sensitive subjects do not have to be constantly looking over their shoulders in fear of government intimidation or prosecution,” he said.