Indictment of Japanese reporter is an embarrassment for South Korea

The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

The indictment of a Japanese reporter Wednesday on a criminal defamation charge over a story on South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s whereabouts on April 16, the day of the Sewol ferry disaster, has become an international embarrassment for South Korea. The Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office indicted Tatsuya Kato, the former Seoul bureau chief of Japan’s conservative Sankei Shimbun, for an Aug. 3 story that reported on speculation concerning Park’s whereabouts based mostly on rumors circulating in the financial industry and a column published in a conservative Korean daily. The prosecution said that the article, based on false information, defamed Park by indicating without any proof that Park had improper relations with a man. A conservative local civic group filed a complaint against Kato, who was subsequently summoned three times for questioning and received a ban from leaving country that has been extended six times. If found guilty, Kato could be sentenced to up to seven years in jail. It cannot be disputed that Kato was wrong to file a story without checking the facts, relying instead on rumors. It was sloppy journalism. Nevertheless, the prosecutors’ decision to indict Kato seems excessive. In court, the prosecution would have to prove malicious intent on Kato’s part. This would be hard to prove. Kato has told prosecutors that “he believed writing about where Park was and how she responded to the ferry sinking had a bearing on the public good,” the Sankei Shimbun reported. In its editorial, the Sankei Shimbun said, “It is an extremely abnormal action for a democratic country which makes provision for freedom of expression in its constitution.”

The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association has expressed concern while the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club issued an open letter to Prosecutor General Kim Jin-tae, which said that it “is deeply concerned that … its decision of indictment could result in severely interfering with the journalists’ right to report.” The issue has already spiraled into a diplomatic row with the Japanese government summoning a Korean envoy to Japan, expressing grave concerns “in light of press freedom and the Japan-Korea relationship.” Even the United States is taking note of the development. During a regular press briefing on Oct. 8, U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the U.S. has been following the investigation since its initiation. “We broadly support freedom of speech and expression,” she said. South Korea has come a long way since the days of authoritarian rule when press censorship was routine and when reporters risked their lives for stories. Yet, recent developments — including the prosecutors’ announcement that cyberspace would be monitored in real time — show us how tenuous that hard-earned press freedom is when the authorities decide to clamp down on dissenting voices.

In indicting a reporter from a foreign newspaper that has been at odds with the South Korean government for its position on Japanese military sexual slavery, the prosecutors have served notice that similar actions could be taken against the domestic press as well.

However, the prosecutors are advised to proceed with caution. The world is watching and surely it would be against Korea’s interests to be labeled as a country that has backpedaled on democracy. This is an editorial published by The Korea Herald on Oct. 11