Tatsuya Kato, former Seoul bureau chief at the Sankei Shimbun national daily, was acquitted on Dec. 17 of defaming South Korean President Park Geun-hye in an article published in August last year. Although the ruling is only natural in that it recognized the freedom of the press, the decision has left many questions unanswered.
Before handing down the ruling, the presiding judge revealed that the South Korean Foreign Ministry asked the court to deal with the matter while bearing Japan-South Korea relations in mind. If the request had some influence on the ruling, it would constitute an intervention by the executive branch in the judicial branch. Such an intervention would be impermissible in a democratic state based on the principle of the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
The indictment of Kato, which was filed in response to a criminal accusation by a citizens group, was unjustifiable in the first place.
In a column published in the daily's online edition, Kato wrote that there are diverse rumors about what President Park was doing over a seven-hour period following the sinking of the Sewol ferry -- during which the president's whereabouts was unknown. Quoting a column in the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, Kato mentioned a rumor about President Park having an affair.
In a hearing in March, the presiding judge expressed the view that the rumor was not true. In another article he published in the Sankei Shimbun, Kato also wrote that he had no intention objecting to the presiding judge's view.
The reporter deserves criticism that he mentioned the rumors without confirming whether they were true or not. Journalists are not necessarily allowed to write whatever they want, even if they state clearly that it is based on unconfirmed rumors.
Still, an attempt to impose criminal liability on a journalist who wrote a critical article is equal to trying to suppress news organizations' role in keeping watch on those in power. Such a move would run counter to the principle of democracy that requires those in power to respect freedom of speech and freedom of the press to the maximum extent.
In South Korea, many criminal accusations have been filed against individuals for defaming the president and other high-ranking government officials. An individual was indicted for producing leaflets slandering President Park, while a criminal accusation was filed against a reporter with a South Korean news organization for reporting a scandal involving a high-ranking official in the president's office. In most cases, however, those accused were not indicted or found not guilty. Those who have filed criminal accusations against people critical of figures in power only appear to resort to legal measures without reasonable grounds to suppress criticism.
A U.N. panel on the International Bill of Human Rights released a report last month expressing concerns that there are a growing number of cases in South Korea in which heavy penalties for defamation are imposed on those who criticize the government. The Japan National Press Club and the International Press Institute have criticized the prosecution of Kato.
South Koreans are proud that they achieve democracy in 1987 on their own. Freedom of expression and the independence of the judicial branch have been achieved as a result of democratization.
The indictment of Kato without reasonable grounds, which drew worldwide attention, only hurt the country's international image. Prosecutors should accept the ruling without appealing it to a higher court.