The criminal action taken by South Korean prosecutors against a former Seoul bureau chief of Japan’s Sankei Shimbun daily — on the charge that his column posted online in August defamed President Park Geun-hye — raises serious questions about the country’s commitment to freedom of the press. It could border on abuse of power if the South Korean investigators are using the charge of libel against a public figure like the president selectively on members of the media that are critical of her administration.
The column in question quoted rumors originally reported in the South Korean media and circulating in the financial industry that Park was with a man during the seven hours when her whereabouts was unconfirmed on April 16 — the day the passenger ferry Sewol sank and killed more than 300 people, mostly teenagers on a school trip. The writer, Tatsuya Kato, was indicted Oct. 8 without being detained. He had been questioned three times by the prosecutors and banned from leaving the country since early August even though he was relieved of his position as bureau chief as of Oct. 1.
The Seoul prosecutors charge that Kato’s column defamed Park’s reputation by carrying information without the minimum backup reporting necessary to support its validity.
The president’s office says Park was inside the presidential compound during the hours in question. The prosecutors were acting on a criminal complaint filed by a local conservative civic group against the article, but it would be safe to assume that the administration was behind the push for the indictment, given that a senior official of the president’s office said earlier that the South Korean authorities would pursue civil and criminal charges against the journalist.
When South Korea was under the rule of a succession of military dictators until the 1980s, people could be punished for defamation of the state by criticizing those in power.
Although such a law was abolished in the country’s subsequent democratization, certain restrictions linger on freedom of thought and expression, such as a national security law that can subject people to penalties for praising North Korea, which Seoul deems as illegally occupying the northern half of the peninsula.
There is reportedly criticism that the Park administration is also using the libel charge as a tool not only against members of the media but also against opposition lawmakers and lawyers that are critical of the government.
That no criminal action has been taken against or investigations made of Chosun Ilbo, a leading conservative South Korean newspaper that originally reported the rumors, has raised the question of whether the investigators selectively targeted the Japanese daily, which takes a position critical of the Park administration on many of the disputes between Japan and South Korea.
Sankei, which strongly protested and called for retraction of the action by the Seoul prosecutors, has said that the column was not meant to defame the president but to serve the public’s interest by reporting on the developments in South Korea concerning the top government leader’s whereabouts on the day the major accident took place.
Maximum restraint is urged on the use of defamation charges by those in power since such an action can be considered discretionary as a way of intimidating the people and organizations that criticize them.
Concerns have been raised among Japanese media and lawmakers, as well as among some South Korean media organizations, that the criminal action against the former Sankei bureau chief could have serious repercussions on already chilly relations between Tokyo and Seoul.
South Korean authorities should reflect on whether the Seoul prosecutors’ action is appropriate in view of the freedom of press in a democracy.