Japanese journalist found not guilty of defaming South Korea’s President

The International Press Institute (IPI) welcomes today’s Seoul Central District Court’s verdict that acquits former Sankei Shimbun Seoul bureau chief Tatsuya Kato of defaming President Park Geun-hye. Nonetheless, IPI reminds South Korean authorities that criminalising defamation falls dramatically short of international legal standards and has a chilling effect on journalists.

IPI welcomes Mr. Kato’s acquittal a ruling which sets a positive precedent in South Korea,” IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi said. “At the same time, we also urge South Korea to reform its defamation laws so as to ensure that journalists don’t face the threat of a prison sentence as a consequence of their job”.

Former Seoul bureau chief of Japan's Sankei Shimbun newspaper, Tatsuya Kato (centre), arrives at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 17, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Former Seoul bureau chief of Japan’s Sankei Shimbun newspaper, Tatsuya Kato (centre), arrives at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 17, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Kato’s story goes back to August 2014, when he published an article on the Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun’s website questioning the South Korean president’s whereabouts in April 2014 during a tragic ferry accident where more than 300 passengers perished. Kato’s piece allegedly referred to rumours that appeared on Korean media outlets, suggesting that President Park’s apparent absence was due to a secret meeting with a former male aide, with whom she was allegedly romantically involved.

The article gained wide attention in the media, amid public criticism of the South Korean government’s handling of the ferry accident.

In early October 2015, Kato was indicted for defaming Park’s reputation, facing a prison term of up to seven years. Under South Korean law, the punishment for defamation committed in an online publication is harsher than in print or broadcast media.

In a Seoul court hearing on Oct. 19, 2015, prosecutors demanded an 18-month prison term arguing that Kato knowingly published groundless rumours, therefore intentionally slandering President Park. (CLICK ON HIGHLIGHTED AREAS FOR SOURCE ITEM)

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