産経記者判決 無分別な訴追終結を

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 18
EDITORIAL: Seoul should end impudent case against Japanese journalist
(社説)産経記者判決 無分別な訴追終結を

A South Korean court on Dec. 17 acquitted Tatsuya Kato, a former Seoul bureau chief for the Sankei Shimbun, who was indicted on a charge of defaming South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

The ruling was all too appropriate considering that South Korean law guarantees freedom of speech.

It was extraordinary in the first place for prosecutors, who exercise public authority, to indict a journalist just for writing an article that displeased the president.

The Seoul Central District Court handed down a totally reasonable ruling by saying, “It is clear that freedom of speech should be respected because our nation has adopted a democratic system.”

Prosecutors should swiftly accept the court decision without appealing it.

The case concerned an article written by Kato that ran on the Sankei website in August 2014. It referred to a “rumor” that Park was with a former male aide and could not be reached for seven hours on April 16, 2014, the day of the Sewol ferry disaster.

The presidential office reacted angrily to the article, pledging to “pursue the responsibility.” Prosecutors then started an investigation into the defamation allegations in response to a criminal complaint filed by a citizen organization and indicted Kato. He was long banned from leaving the country.

Under South Korean law, Kato would not have been indicted if President Park, the alleged victim of defamation, had said she didn’t wish for punishment against the Sankei journalist.

But the fact is that the trial following the indictment lasted for as long as 14 months, leading to the Dec. 17 ruling. That leaves little doubt that Park herself wanted to see the journalist prosecuted.

Didn’t she give any thought to how badly South Korea’s democracy would be damaged by the prosecution of a reporter for a news organization just because of the wishes of the person in power?

Unsurprisingly, journalist organizations of not only Japan but also other countries voiced strong concerns about the South Korean government’s legal action against Kato.

Before the verdict was read out, the presiding judge revealed that the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs had asked the court to give consideration to Japan’s request for “appropriate handling” of the case.

It was an unusual move that can be interpreted as an attempt by the South Korean government to end the case, which has further strained bilateral relations and provoked international criticism.

The Park administration should do serious soul-searching on its misguided move to prosecute a case that should never have been brought to court in the first place. By doing so, Seoul unnecessarily created a sticky political issue with serious diplomatic consequences.

Even without the case, relations between the Japanese and South Korean governments have soured badly in the past few years, casting dark shadows even on grass-roots exchanges between people of the two neighboring countries.

Both Tokyo and Seoul should restrain themselves from any action that could generate unnecessary diplomatic friction.

The court ruling, however, acknowledged that the former Sankei bureau chief was aware that the rumor he wrote about was false.

The defense team stopped denying this allegation during the trial. This means the Sankei cannot claim to have fulfilled its responsibility as a news medium.

South Korea’s legal action against the Sankei reporter has been a festering sore in the relationship between the country and Japan.

This case should be brought to an end quickly so that the two governments can concentrate on diplomatic efforts to resolve really important issues, like the “comfort women.”

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