October 19, 2015 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Japanese journalist could get jail over coverage of South Korea’s president

Reporters Without Borders urges the South Korean judicial system to refrain from imposing a jail sentence on Japanese journalist Tatsuya Kato on a charge of criminally defaming President Park Geun-hye. On Monday, prosecutors sought an 18-month jail term for Kato. A Seoul court is expected to issue a sentence on 26 November.
(Japanese version - by Makiko Segawa->

The Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun’s former Seoul bureau chief, Tatsuya Kato was charged in October 2014 over a story posted on its website on 3 August 2014 speculating about the president’s activities on the day the Sewol ferry sank in April 2014. Headlined “President Park Geun-hye went missing on the day of the ferry sinking… who did she meet?”, the story elicited angry reactions from the president’s supporters and the prosecution was the result of a complaint filed by a nationalist group. Journalistically, the news value of the speculation and rumours reported in the article was highly debatable. Furthermore, the rumours had already been reported on various other websites including the site of the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo without any complaint being brought against the authors of these reports. “Prosecuting a journalist for questioning the president’s actions is inconceivable in a state that regards itself a democracy,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk. “We urge the South Korean judicial authorities not to impose a prison sentence, which would be disproportionate, and to take account of the fact that the offending article was based on reports already accessible online whose authors have not been prosecuted.” Kato was questioned repeatedly by prosecutors and was placed under close surveillance. His phone was tapped and his email account was hacked. After being banned from travelling abroad for nine months, he was finally allowed to leave Seoul in April. Regardless of the fact that Sankei Shimbun is a right-wing newspaper regarded as anti-Korean, such prosecutions reflect a desire to impose tighter controls on the way the media portray President Park, a sensitive issue since the Sewol disaster. Park’s handling of the crisis was much criticized and her popularity has declined significantly. A criminal defamation charge carrying a possibly seven-year jail term is a real threat for journalists who criticize the government. This is not the first time South Korea’s defamation laws have been used to suppress unwanted coverage and comments about Park and her close associates. South Korea is ranked 60th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index after falling in the index for the past four years.