Appeals court clears S Korea journalists of defamation

SEOUL - A South Korean appeals court on Friday acquitted two journalists of defaming President Park Geun-Hye's brother after a prosecution criticised for seeking to restrict press freedoms.

Kim Ou-Joon and Choo Chin-Woo had already been cleared of all charges in a jury trial last year, but the prosecutors appealed, calling for jail terms for both men.

The defamation suit related to a report suggesting Park's younger brother, Park Ji-Man, had been involved in the death of his cousin, who was killed by another family member.

Domestic critics and global rights monitors have accused the South Korean president's administration of using defamation charges and the country's strict National Security Law (NSL) to suppress freedom of speech and silence opposition voices.

South Korean defamation law focuses on whether what was said or written was in the public interest - rather than whether it was true.

In its acquittal ruling Friday, the Seoul High Court stressed that freedom of speech was "a core value of human dignity ... and an effective tool to monitor and control state power," the Yonhap news agency reported.

Global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) had called the prosecution of Kim and Choo a "crude manoeuvre" by the authorities to scare journalists away from sensitive issues.

South Korea has been falling in the World Press Freedom index in recent years, to 57th among 180 nations in 2014 from 42nd in 2010.

On Wednesday, authorities arrested a former leftist politician for remarks praising North Korea - in violation of the NSL.

A Korean-American woman was deported at the weekend on similar charges and barred from re-entering the country for five years.

Another high-profile defamation trial underway in Seoul involves a Japanese journalist, Tatsuya Kato, the former Seoul bureau chief of the conservative Sankei Shimbun newspaper.

The charge against Kato stems from an August article he wrote about the South Korean president's whereabouts on the day the Sewol passenger ferry sank in April with the loss of around 300 lives.