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Hither and Yon

Media freedom on trial in Seoul

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com
The zeal with which the Korean government pursued the case of Tatsuya Kato, charged with criminal libel, bears disturbing parallels to the records of other countries that prosecute critics. The charge of libel is a favorite weapon of authorities in Singapore and Malaysia, to name two notorious practitioners of that technique.
They profess some measure of democracy, but in other countries, legal niceties are irrelevant. Censorship prevails ― and pity the miscreant who gets his adversarial views into print or on the air. In the Philippines, where there is no censorship, assassins simply gun down critics whose voices or articles challenge or merely offend local warlords and power-grabbers.
By a rather narrow margin, it seems, Korea avoided going after someone whose work had been more than a little infuriating.
The exoneration of Kato, who had reported from Seoul on a rumor that President Park Geun-Hye was unreachable for seven hours in April while the Sewol was sinking with hundreds of high school students on board, marked a victory for him as well as Sankei Shimbun, the paper for which he reports. His acquittal, moreover, averted another irritant between Korea and Japan. Just think of the ruckus if the court had found him guilty and acceded to the prosecution’s demand for a prison sentence.
Kato’s acquittal was also a triumph for me personally. I testified as a defense witness, arguing that his report was trivial, that it was not deliberately slanderous, that foreign journalists often pick up stuff from the local media and the case only further publicized a story that no one took seriously.
Evidently, the court agreed. To everyone’s immense relief, his decision distinguished Korea from other countries that claim to be democracies but abuse their systems by bringing libel charges against critics and political foes.
In a sense, the decision appeared to show the independence of the Korean judiciary. I had predicted, over cups of coffee with Sankei bureau chief Kinya Fujimoto, that the court would inevitably find Kato guilty and levy a fine but not send him to jail.
I was glad to testify for two reasons. For one thing, I was curious about what a Korean court would be like and, for another, I found it hard to believe that anyone could have been so concerned about Kato’s report, which he had purloined from an unsubstantiated piece published in Chosun Ilbo, Korea’s biggest-selling newspaper.
The scrupulous attention given to my testimony by the court was a revelation in itself. For four hours one day in June, I answered questions from teams of defense and prosecution lawyers while an interpreter translated from Korean to English and English to Korean. Another interpreter translated everything into Japanese.
At one point the chief judge asked if I understood the difference between German and American law on free speech. Under German law, he told me, an insult to human dignity would be libelous. Somehow, chances of acquittal seemed slight.
While the acquittal came as a relief, the elaborate, protracted nature of the case prompted questions.
Why did the prosecution go to such lengths over a trivial gossipy story, and why did the court schedule only one hearing a month, doing nothing other than listen to my testimony on the day of my appearance?
A month later the court heard the next defense witness, the Seoul bureau chief for Nishi Nippori, a daily paper in western Japan. One month after that came the turn for the third and final witness, a professor from Tokyo.
Perhaps more importantly, why did President Park, so hurt by gossip linking her reported absence to a liaison with a gentleman friend, want the system to dedicate such time, trouble and expense to pillorying an obstreperous foreigner? Why is libel a criminal rather than civil offense in Korea ― and would the prosecution exercise its right, provided under Korean law, to an appeal?
The answer to that final question is, no, the prosecution has decided not to appeal, but the reason is nothing as simple as the inherent folly of the case. It is that the foreign ministry, so immersed in such difficult issues with Japan as fair compensation for the comfort women who served Japanese troops in World War II, does not want to have to deal with yet another annoying problem. A conviction would have made Kato a hero, a martyr, in Japan.
It’s worrisome enough that the government pressed libel charges but still more worrisome that authorities might someday follow the example of other countries, notably Singapore, and use criminal libel as a weapon.
If Kato’s acquittal contrasted with the guilty verdicts that the courts in Singapore routinely hand down against foreign media, it does not exactly resolve the longer term question of the freedom, or even impunity, with which foreign as well as domestic journalists can report from Korea.
Donald Kirk has been covering issues of freedom and human rights in Korea and elsewhere in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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