South Korean prosecutors on Wednesday indicted a Japanese journalist on charges he defamed South Korea's president by reporting rumors that she was absent for seven hours during the April ferry disaster, according to the journalist's employer and the Japanese government.
The weeks-long investigation of the former Seoul bureau chief of the conservative Sankei Shimbun newspaper has raised questions about South Korea's press freedom. Critics say conservative South Korean President Park Geun-hye has clamped down on journalists in an attempt to control her image.
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The indictment also comes amid rising animosity between the rival North Asian neighbors. South Korea sees a growing nationalist tilt in Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a continuing refusal to take responsibility for its brutal colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula until the end of World War II. The Sankei Shimbun is reviled by some in South Korea for its right-wing positions.
Journalist Tatsuya Kato, 48, had been banned from leaving the country during the South Korean investigation, even though Japan's Kyodo news agency reported he was transferred out of his bureau chief position Oct. 1. South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted prosecutors as saying they questioned Kato three times and charged him because they concluded his report was false. The news agency says Kato was indicted without detention.
The indictment is linked to an article Kato posted online Aug. 3 about Park's whereabouts on the day when the Sewol ferry sank, killing more than 300 people, mostly teenagers on a school trip. Park and her government have been criticized for the botched rescue operation, and South Korean media had questioned whether she was unaccounted for on the day the disaster happened.
In his report, Kato cited financial industry rumors, parliamentary debates and the leading conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo.
Kato's headline said: "President Park Geun-hye was missing on the day the passenger ship sank. Who was she meeting?" The article repeated rumors in South Korean media and the financial industry "about a relationship between the president and a man" said to be married at the time. Other reports suggested the man was a recently divorced former aide.
Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters, "We are concerned about the development from the viewpoint of freedom of speech and bilateral relations."
Sankei president Takamitsu Kumasaka protested the indictment and demanded it be retracted as soon as possible.
"It is a serious and clear violation to the freedom of speech guaranteed by the constitution not only of South Korea but also of Japan and any other democratic nation," he said in a statement.
Kumasaka said the story had no intention to defame the South Korean president and that it only tried to convey developments surrounding Park's whereabouts. The report "serves the public's interest," he said, adding that the indictment would only damage South Korea's credibility in the international community.
South Korea is now a vibrant liberal democracy, but it was ruled until the late 80s by a succession of military dictators, including Park's father, Park Chung-hee, who cracked down on both the press and dissenters.
Reporters Without Borders noted that the Chosun Ilbo hasn't been investigated for the original report on the rumors. The group ranks South Korea 57th out of 180 countries in its 2014 press freedom index.
"It is completely normal for news media to ask questions about the actions of politicians, including the president," Benjamin Ismail, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia desk, said in a statement posted online last month. "Vagueness about the president's agenda during a national tragedy is clearly a subject of public interest."
AP writers Mari Yamaguchi and Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.