Japanese journalist denies defaming S. Korea president

Japanese journalist denies defaming S. Korea president
Tatsuya Kato, former Seoul bureau chief for Japan's Sankei Shimbun, arrives at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office in Seoul.

SEOUL - A Japanese journalist charged with defaming South Korean President Park Geun-Hye insisted at a preliminary court hearing on Thursday that he had acted in the public interest.

Tatsuya Kato, who until Oct 1 was bureau chief of the conservative Sankei Shimbun newspaper, was indicted last month and banned from leaving South Korea in a case that has further strained ties between Seoul and Tokyo.

The charge of criminal libel, which could see him jailed for up to seven years, stems from an Aug article he wrote regarding Park's whereabouts on the day the Sewol passenger ferry sank with the loss of 300 lives.

The story picked up rumours circulating in the South Korean media and stock broker houses that unmarried Park had disappeared for a tryst with a man at the time of the sinking in April.

The president's office has strongly denied the rumours.

"I only intended to inform Japanese readers of the Korean people's perception about the president following the Sewol ferry disaster," Kato told the Seoul Central District Court.

"I had no intention to defame the president at all," he added.

Park and her administration were heavily criticised for their handling of the Sewol tragedy.

South Korean defamation law focuses on whether what was said or written was in the public interest - a test Kato's lawyer said the August article met.

Media freedom group Reporters Without Borders has also defended the Sankei, arguing that Kato's report was "clearly" in the public interest.

Senior prosecutor Jung Soo-Bong told the court that Kato had defamed Park by suggesting the alleged tryst was established fact.

The case comes at a time when relations between Tokyo and Seoul are at their lowest ebb for years, dogged by territorial disputes and rows over wartime history.

The Japanese government has formally voiced its "grave concern" over Kato's indictment and has questioned Seoul's commitment to press freedom.

The Sankei, a robust centre-right daily that has campaigned to reverse an apology from Japan over the forcing of Korean women into wartime brothels, has suggested it is being singled out by the Korean authorities.

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