Japanese journalist acquitted of defaming Park

December 17, 2015
Tatsuya Kato, a Japanese journalist accused of defamation against the South Korean president, walks into the Seoul Central District Court on Dec. 17, 2015, for his sentencing trial. (Yonhap)

Tatsuya Kato, a Japanese journalist accused of defamation against the South Korean president, walks into the Seoul Central District Court on Dec. 17, 2015, for his sentencing trial. (Yonhap)

SEOUL (Yonhap) — A Japanese journalist was acquitted Thursday of charges that he defamed South Korean President Park Geun-hye in print.

Tatsuya Kato, the former Seoul bureau chief for Japan’s conservative Sankei Shimbun newspaper, was found not guilty of defaming Park by writing an article last year on rumors that the president spent time with a former aide for hours when a ferry disaster took place.

“The defendant’s article was inappropriate to some degree but it falls under the freedom of the press in a democratic society considering it was written to serve public interest,” judge Lee Dong-geun of the Seoul Central District Court said.

In August 2014, Kato wrote the article online about Park’s whereabouts on April 16, when the Sewol ferry sank off the southwest coast, killing more than 300 people, mostly high school students on a school trip.

He cited a column carried by the Chosun Ilbo in mid-July, in which South Korea’s largest-circulation newspaper said Park’s whereabouts were unknown for seven hours, triggering rumors that she was with the aide at an undisclosed location.

The judge said that the rumors Kato reported in August are groundless.

“The article showed considerable impropriety,” the judge said. “However, it is difficult to conclude that he had the intent to defame the president as a public figure.”

Prosecutors had demanded an 18-month prison term for Kato, arguing that he had clear intent to defame Park.

Following the ruling, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry expressed hope that Kato’s acquittal will help improve bilateral ties.

“Now that the burden caused by the indictment has been removed, we expect it to be an opportunity to improve ties between South Korea and Japan going forward,” a foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

The official said the ruling revealed that the report was based on false information, adding the Seoul government hopes that a similar incident will not occur.

Before the ruling, Japan appealed to South Korea to deal with the case prudently and positively, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.

The ministry confirmed it asked the Justice Ministry to take Japan’s request into account in light of signs that the neighboring countries are warming their ties.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two sides.

In Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also voiced hopes that the acquittal will serve as a chance for improved Seoul-Tokyo ties.

Abe told reporters that the ruling is expected to have a positive effect on the relationship.

 

 

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