S. Korea libel probe: Japan paper welcomes attention, encouragement

The column, which was posted online on August 3 and has not been removed, is about 'rumours' concerning Park’s whereabouts at the time of the sinking of a passenger ferry with the loss of 300 lives. — Reuters pic
The column, which was posted online on August 3 and has not been removed, is about 'rumours' concerning Park’s whereabouts at the time of the sinking of a passenger ferry with the loss of 300 lives. — Reuters pic

TOKYO, Sept 9 — A Japanese newspaper said today it was encouraged by calls from a press freedom group for South Korea not to prosecute its Seoul bureau chief over alleged libel of President Park Geun-Hye.

Tatsuya Kato, 48, who heads the Seoul operation of the conservative Sankei Shimbun, has been questioned by authorities in South Korea after complaints over an online column about Park.

He was banned from leaving South Korea in late August and faces a possible seven-year jail term if convicted of criminal libel.

The column, which was posted online on August 3 and has not been removed, is about “rumours” concerning Park’s whereabouts at the time of the sinking of a passenger ferry with the loss of 300 lives.

Media freedom group Reporters Without Borders has defended the Sankei, arguing the subject of the paper’s column was “clearly” in the public interest.

South Korean prosecutors began questioning Kato on 18 August as a result of complaints filed by an association of South Korean citizens, the group noted, adding he remains under surveillance and his freedom of movement has been curtailed.

“It is completely normal for news media to ask questions about the actions of politicians, including the president,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia desk.

“Vagueness about the president’s agenda during a national tragedy is clearly a subject of public interest,” he said in a statement.

“Furthermore, Kato’s story was based on information which was already online and which has not been the subject of any complaint.

“We call on the authorities to drop the charges against Kato and to lift the restrictions on his movements.”

The Sankei Shimbun is known for being critical of South Korea and is not popular with the South Korean public, the group added.

The newspaper said it welcomed the intervention by Reporters Without Borders.

“We take it as very encouraging support,” a statement issued by the paper’s public relations department said.

The daily also published a full Japanese translation of the global press group’s statement in its today’s edition.

Takeshi Kobayashi, chief editor at the Sankei’s Tokyo head office, said in a statement in August that “the column had no intent whatsoever to defame or denigrate the South Korean president.”

He said it was “hard to understand why the column was called into question” as it was based on exchanges in South Korea’s parliament and on a column in South Korea’s major daily Chosun Ilbo. — AFP

The paper hoped for “a fair judgement in light of freedom of the press and freedom of expression which are the foundation of a democratic country”, he said.

Other Japanese media have also voiced concern over the South Korean action.

The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association has said it has “strong concern” that press freedom may be threatened.

No one from South Korea’s prosecuting authorities was available to comment. — AFP