Japan regrets reporter's indictment

Japan regrets reporter's indictment
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

KOREA - Japan expressed "deep regret" over the South Korean prosecution's decision to indict a Japanese journalist for allegedly defaming President Park Geun-hye, underscoring the different stances toward press freedom and signaling that the nations' already soured bilateral ties might hit another rough patch.

"(The indictment) is deeply regrettable in terms of the freedom of press and relationship between the two countries, as Korea ignored voices of concern repeatedly expressed by our government and by media inside and outside Japan," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

"It is in stark contrast to the common value of the international community, which is to respect the freedom of speech as much as possible and carry on with law enforcement only in a reserved manner."

Later in the day, Tokyo's Foreign Ministry called in diplomat Kim Won-jin from Korea's embassy in Japan and expressed deep regrets for the indictment while adding that it was "deeply concerned about the situation.

Tatsuya Kato, head of the Seoul bureau of Japan's Sankei Shimbun newspaper, was indicted Wednesday on defamation charges after he put out a report speculating that Park and an unidentified man might have had a secret meeting on the day of the deadly ferry disaster in April.

Citing an earlier opinion piece by Korean media, the 48-year-old said that Park's whereabouts were unknown for seven hours, which incited rumours on the supposed secret meeting.

The presidential office denied the rumours and said that Park had been inside the presidential compound at the time of the incident. Last month, Park issued a strong statement denouncing defamatory remarks against him, after which the prosecution announced it was stepping up online monitoring efforts on insulting comments.

In response to the article, a local civic group filed a complaint against Kato and he had been summoned three times by prosecutors.

Legal actions against Kato spurred a freedom of press dispute and prompted criticism on the government.

Earlier in the day, Japan's Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio expressed concern over Kato's indictment. Sankei President Takamitsu demanded that the charges should be dropped, calling it a "serious and clear violation to the freedom of speech."

According to the AFP, the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club on Wednesday issued an open letter to Seoul's Prosecutor General Kim Jin-Tae, sying it "is deeply concerned that ... its decision of indictment could result in severely interfering with the journalists' right to report."

The incident came as the relationship between Korea and Japan had stooped to its lowest point in recent years, in light of Japan's attempt to renew its claims on Korea's Dokdo islets and its denial of its crimes during World War II. In August, Korea's Minister Yun Byung-se said it was "regretful" that the Japanese paper cited groundless rumours to defame Park.

An official from the Foreign Ministry cautioned against blowing the incident out of proportion, saying Kato's indictment was merely a judicial matter and is unlikely to progress to a diplomatic issue. The ministry has yet to announce its official position on the matter.

On speculation that the incident may have negative effects on a finance ministers' meeting between Korea and Japan, and further cloud the efforts to hold a summit within this year, Suga said the need for talks was even greater. minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com

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