Freedom of the press in South Korea

A trial began in Seoul last week of a Japanese journalist indicted for defaming South Korean President Park Geun-hye by reporting rumors that she was absent for seven hours during a ferry boat disaster in April because the unmarried lady chief of state was with a man.

Tatsuya Kato, former Seoul bureau chief of Japan’s Sankei Shimbun, was indicted for posting an article on Aug. 3 on the paper’s website reporting the rumors in Korean media about the whereabouts of President Park on April 16 when the MV Sewol sank, resulting in the deaths of more than 300 passengers, mostly teenagers on a school trip. The rumors said President Park was with an unmarried former aide, but her office denied this was the case.

The trial raised the question of whether freedom of the press is upheld in South Korea. Incidentally, Mr. Kato’s name is pronounced in exactly the same way as Cato in Latin, which Peter Zenger of the New York Weekly Journal used as a pseudonym when he wrote an expose attacking new British colonial Governor of New York William Cosby in 1733. Zenger was arrested on charges of libel, tried after staying behind bars for eight months, and acquitted in 1735. It was first trial in the world to set a precedent for safeguarding freedom of the press.

Nobody knows if Mr. Kato will be acquitted like Peter Zenger. As a matter of fact, President Park, daughter of General Park Chung-hee who seized power in a coup in 1961, ruled South Korea as a dictator until his election as president in 1963, and was assassinated in 1972, shouldn’t have charges of defamation brought against the Japanese journalist, who was banned from leaving Seoul for three months, though not thrown into prison, just for reporting rumors in the Korean media. The indictment resulted from complaints filed by the Association of South Korean Citizens.

In South Korea, such litigation is rare, and incompetent international media have failed to report if similar charges were pressed against South Korea media. I presume that no Korean reporters were indicted, because all President Park needs to do to control her image is to ask for retraction, if freedom of the press is upheld in South Korea. Well, that’s the way such cases are treated in a democracy.

Moreover, an anti-Japan South Korean crowd tried to mob Mr. Kato. His car was blocked and rotten eggs were thrown at him to show “public outcry” and warn the Seoul Central District Court against an acquittal.

The Park versus Kato case has opened a debate on South Korea’s freedom of speech and expression. After Kato’s indictment, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs called in Minister Kim Won-jin of the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo to lodge a formal protest. The Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club issued an open letter to South Korean Prosecutor General Kim Jin-tae, expressing concern that Kato’s indictment could have an “adverse impact” on the country’s journalism environment.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “We broadly support freedom of the Press and expression” and expressed “concern about the law on the books in South Korea, which stipulates criminal defamation. Moon Jae-in, a South Korean opposition lawmaker who was Park’s main rival in the 2012 presidential elections, told reporters the decision to indict Kato was an “embarrassment.”

If not one South Korean press worker has been indicted for spreading the rumors, the prosecution is discriminating against the Seoul bureau chief of the rightist Sankei Shimbun, which is considered hostile to the Republic of Korea. Kato’s battle comes as diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan are at a low point due to a territorial dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima Island in the Sea of Japan and conflicts over wartime history, including the issue of “comfort women,” those who were forced to work as sex slaves of the Japanese Imperial Army before and during the Second World War. Anti-Japan sentiments in South Korea are high.

South Korea doesn’t harbor nearly the same level of negative sentiment against Taiwan, and yet its media has never lost time criticizing the ruling Kuomintang for being anti-Korea because of a campaign ad for Saturday’s nationwide 9-in-1 Elections. Newsis, one of its three major news agencies, charged the Kuomintang with exaggerating the impact of the Sino-Korean free trade act on Taiwan by naming the Republic of Korea as a culprit and accusing the Democratic Progressive Party of blocking the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement at a time when it was fighting an uphill struggle in the all-important local elections. The agreement, signed in Shanghai on June 21 last year has yet to be “ratified” by the Kuomintang-controlled Legislative Yuan because the opposition party is deadly opposed to it.

Newsis falsely accused the Kuomintang. The campaign ad shows a woman in a traditional Korean outfit ridiculing Taiwan’s lack of economic vitality. It highlights the advantages that South Korea would enjoy thanks to the FTA. There is no badmouthing in the ad and there are no anti-Korean sentiments in Taiwan. But the Korean news service didn’t hesitate to help the opposition party by blasting the Kuomintang.

Unlike in South Korea, no action has been taken by the Kuomintang to retaliate. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made no comment. In Taiwan, we know what freedom of the press is. The Korean media is free to criticize, and the only thing the afflicted party did was to point out that Newsis made a false accusation.

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