Japan hits out at S Korea over reporter's libel charge

TOKYO - Tokyo Thursday criticised the indictment of a Japanese journalist in South Korea over a story about President Park Geun-Hye, saying the move raised serious concerns about press freedoms.

Tatsuya Kato, who until October 1 was bureau chief of the conservative Sankei Shimbun newspaper, was indicted late Wednesday on suspicion of criminally libelling Park, a charge that could see him jailed for up to seven years.

Kato, 48, has been under investigation since August -- and has been banned from leaving the country -- over an August 3 column about "rumours" concerning Park's whereabouts on the day the Sewol passenger ferry sank with the loss of 300 lives.

While he used some original quotes from his own sources, Kato's story was chiefly based on information already available online, and which has not been the subject of any complaint.

"It is extremely deplorable that the Sankei Shimbun's former Seoul bureau chief was indicted, in a move by South Korea which ignores voices of concern... repeatedly expressed by our government and by media inside and outside Japan," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

Kato's term as bureau chief ended at the beginning of the month, the Sankei said, in line with the paper's policy of limited-time appointments.

"It is contrary to the common values of the international community that law enforcement must be done in a reserved manner in the light of freedom of press, which is vital in a democracy," Suga said.

The Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club on Wednesday issued an open letter to Seoul's Prosecutor General Kim Jin-Tae, which says the SFCC "is deeply concerned that... its decision of indictment could result in severely interfering with the journalists' right to reporting".

Media freedom group Reporters Without Borders has also defended the Sankei, arguing the subject of the paper's column was "clearly" in the public interest.

'Extremely abnormal action'

South Korean prosecutors began questioning Kato on 18 August as a result of complaints filed by an association of South Korean citizens, the group noted, adding he remains under surveillance and his freedom of movement has been curtailed.

Takamitsu Kumasaka, President of the Sankei Shimbun, a paper known for being critical of South Korea and which is unpopular in that country, said he "strongly protests and demands retraction" of the indictment.

"It is an extremely abnormal action for a democratic country which makes provision for freedom of expression in its constitution," the Sankei said in its editorial.

United States State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the US is "aware of" Kato's indictment as "we've been following the investigation by Seoul prosecutor since its initiation".

"We broadly support freedom of speech and expression," she told reporters, noting that the State Department's past reports have expressed "our concerns about the law on the books in South Korea" which stipulates criminal defamation.

No one from South Korea's prosecuting authorities was available to comment.

The Sankei is one of Japan's more robust papers. It is proudly centre-right and frequently lambasts Japan's critics at home and abroad.

Earlier this year it inveighed against foreign journalists working in Tokyo, accusing them of lapping up "anti-Japan propaganda by China and Korea" for reporting on Japan's wartime record of sex slavery.