A Japanese journalist has been cleared of defaming President Park Geun-hye when he suggested the the South Korean leader was with a man during the 2014 ferry disaster which killed more than 300 people.
Tatsuya Kato, former Seoul bureau chief of Japan’s Sankei Shimbun newspaper, was indicted in a South Korean court in October last year.
Prosecutors said a report he wrote in August 2014 over President Park’s whereabouts during a ferry disaster, which referred to a rumour she was with a man at the time, was based on false information, had no foundation and damaged her honour.
The president’s office said the rumour had no merit.
“The court views the conduct of the defendant was in the realm of freedom of the press,” Judge Lee Dong-geun said at the end of a three-hour hearing by a three-member panel.
“It is difficult to conclude that the defendant intended to defame the president or libel her as a public figure.”
Prosecutors who had sought an 18-month prison term declined to say if they would appeal against the decision.
Kato told a news conference prosecutors should accept the verdict and not seek an appeal.
“The process was unfair and discriminatory from the start,” said Kato, whose newspaper is known to take a conservative approach to delicate issues of wartime history that still plague bilateral ties.
South Korea’s foreign ministry had asked the court to consider Japan’s request for leniency given the two countries’ recent efforts to improve ties.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed the verdict.
“I expect that it will have a positive effect on the Japan-South Korean relationship,” he said in Tokyo.
Relations between the neighbours are strained over what South Korea sees as Japanese leaders’ reluctance to properly atone for the country’s colonial wartime past, especially over the issue of Korean “comfort women”, as those forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II are known.
The case drew criticism from media and human rights groups over Park’s stance on freedom of the press and fuelled worry that the legal system could be used to stifle political opposition.
Kato had remained free during the months-long proceedings. A travel ban was lifted in April.
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