SEOUL - The Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office has indicted without arrest the former chief of The Sankei Shimbun's Seoul Bureau, on charges of defaming South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
Tatsuya Kato, 48, has been questioned by authorities after complaints were filed by a local civic group over his online column about Park.
According to the indictment, made Wednesday, the column posted online on Aug. 3 reported a false rumour that Park met with a former male aide on the day of the Sewol ferry disaster in April, in which more than 300 were killed or missing, and that through the report both the president and the former aide were defamed.
The green light for Kato's indictment without arrest under the information and communications network law is believed to have been given by the Blue House.
As it is extremely rare for a reporter from an overseas media organisation to be indicted in connection with a report concerning the president, it is possible that the Park Administration may meet with severe criticism from both within and outside the nation.
The whereabouts of Park on the day of the Sewol disaster have been questioned at the National Assembly, and there have been vague rumours.
In the column, Kato wrote that the rumours were "about the president's relationship with a man according to a source related to the securities industry."
The column has received criticism for "having defamed the female head of state."
The prosecutors office has questioned Kato three times since mid-August. Though Kato received an order from his company to transfer to the Tokyo headquarters as of Oct. 1, the prosecutors office has repeatedly extended the ban on Kato's leaving the country.
On Wednesday, a source related to the prosecutors office gave reasons for the indictment, such as that the column was false; the reporter did not take necessary steps, including confirming facts with parties concerned; the article reads as if the president had an inappropriate relationship with the man and thus defamed her; and that there has been neither apology nor remorse.
In South Korea, defamation under the information and communications network law is considered a more serious crime than defamation under the penal code. The information and communications network law stipulates imprisonment for up to seven years or a fine of up to 50 million won (about S$59,500) for a case in which a false assertion is spread on the Internet with the aim of defaming or dishonoring others.
The first session of the trial is expected to be held in about a month. The court is highly likely to further extend the ban on Kato leaving the country. The ban could be protracted for a longer period, as it would not usually be lifted until the trial ends.
The Japanese government has conveyed its concerns that this would violate freedom of speech and could negatively influence Japan-South Korean relations.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Wednesday, "It is very regrettable and I am concerned about it."
The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association expressed strong concern about the case in August. The Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club also expressed serious concern on Wednesday.
"We strongly protest the indictment and demand that it be retracted immediately," said Takamitsu Kumasaka, president of The Sankei Shimbun. "It is a clear and serious violation of freedom of speech, which is guaranteed by the South Korean Constitution, and by constitutions in other democratic countries including Japan."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga criticised the indictment during the press conference on Thursday, saying: "It is extremely regrettable from the viewpoints of freedom of the press and the Japan-South Korean relationship. It is far from the common sense of the international community."