South Korean officials have charged a Japanese reporter with defaming President Park Geun-hye. Defamation means “to hurt the reputation of someone or something, especially by saying things that are false or unfair.” Critics of the strict law are worried about its effect on freedom of speech.
Tatsuya Kato is a reporter based in the South Korean capital Seoul. He reports for the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun. The newspaper is often critical of South Korean officials.
A story on August 3rd by Mr. Kato suggested President Park was with a man during the time of the Sewol ferry disaster earlier this year. It said that is the reason she did not deal with the crisis for seven hours. The Economist reports the president’s office strongly denies Ms. Park was with a man at the time of the disaster.
On April 16th, more than 300 people died when the ferry sank during a trip to the island of Jeju. Many of the victims were high school students.
Mr. Kato told a judge that he is not guilty of defamation. The Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s office said Mr. Kato’s story was based on what it called “false facts.” If Mr. Kato is found guilty of the charge, he could spend seven years in prison.
Mr. Kato’s story noted reports in South Korean media that Ms. Park, who is not married, was in a romantic relationship with a former aide. The aide recently divorced his wife. But reports said he was married at the time he was having a relationship with Ms. Park. None of the reporters who wrote those stories have been charged with illegally criticizing the president.
In addition to its defamation law, South Korea has a law giving the government permission to stop media from reporting some stories. That law -- and the law banning strong criticism of government officials -- was designed to help fight spying and propaganda efforts by North Korea.
Oh Chang-ik is with the group Citizens’ Solidarity for Human Rights, in Seoul. Mr. Oh says President Park is using the law to protect her image. He says the case shows South Korea is being controlled by the president and not governed by the law. He says this permits the president’s emotions to control important national policies and criminal cases.
Mr. Kato was charged as tensions between South Korea and Japan grow. Each country claims control over a group of nearby islands. No one lives on the islands. And many South Koreans still dislike Japan because of that country’s history of invasions.
Mr. Oh says Mr. Kato was not charged with a crime just because he is Japanese. But he says being Japanese did not help him, either. Mr. Oh says it was easier to charge a Japanese reporter than an American reporter. But he says he does not think the case is linked to relations between Japan and South Korea.
The Economist reports Mr. Kato is banned from leaving South Korea. It says some South Korean reporters may on their own stop reporting stories critical of the government because of the way Mr. Kato has been treated.
Journalist groups -- including Reporters Without Borders -- have said they are worried about the case. They say it could affect press freedoms in South Korea.
In 2011, the group Freedom House said South Korea is a “partly free” country that regularly stops media from reporting some news. And in 2012 the human rights group Amnesty International called on the government to weaken or cancel the national security law. The group said there had been a sharp increase in the number of cases in which the government was using the law for political purposes to try to stop people from debating policies.
I’m Bob Doughty.
Correspondent Brian Padden and VOA News producer Youmi Kim reported this story from Seoul. Christopher Cruise wrote this story for Learning English. Jeri Watson edited it.
Words in This Story
strict – adj. used to describe a law, command or rule that must be obeyed
critical – adj. expressing criticism or disapproval
disaster – n. something (such as a boat sinking, flood, tornado, fire or plane crash) that happens suddenly and causes much suffering or loss to many people
romantic relationship – n. of, relating to, or involving love between two people; a romantic or sexual friendship between two people
divorce – n. the ending of a marriage by a legal process
propaganda – n. ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader or a government
image – n. the idea that people have about someone or something
emotions – n. a strong feeling (such as love, anger, joy, hate, or fear)
nearby – adj. not far away; located at a short distance from someone or something
invasion – n. the act of invading something, such as the act of entering a place in an attempt to take control of it
sharp – adj. sudden and quick