Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The Seoul Central District Court acquitted a journalist of criminal defamation for an article written about the Sewol Ferry disaster. On October 8, 2014, Tatsuya Kato, former Seoul bureau chief for the conservative Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun, was indicted for criminal defamation based on a controversial column in which he alleged that during the April 16 Sewol ferry disaster, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was with her former aide with whom she had an affair. Public prosecutors sought an 18-month prison sentence for allegedly publishing false information. According to the court, while the article contained inappropriate statements, it concerned a matter of public interest and fell “within the area where the freedom of the press should be protected in a democratic society.”
Columbia Global Freedom of Expression could not identify the official legal and government records on the case and that the information contained in this report was derived from secondary sources. It must be noted that media outlets may not provide complete information about this case. Additional information regarding this legal matter will be updated as an official source becomes available.
In April 2014, shortly after the Sewol ferry disaster that resulted in the death of over 300 hundred high school students, there was much controversy as to whereabouts of the South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Then later in August, Japanese journalist Kato penned a column for Sankei Shimbun newspaper in which he suggested that the president had spent that 7-hour absence with her former aid with whom she allegedly had an affair.
The article subsequently prompted Seoul’s public prosecutors to bring a criminal defamation charge against the journalist, seeking imprisonment for at least 18 months. The prosecutors accused him of publishing an article based on “false facts.” Kato did not plead guilty to the charge. According to Human Rights Watch, South Korea’s criminal defamation law solely concerns whether the impugned expression, spoken or written, was about a matter of public interest or not. And a defamatory statement using “openly false facts” can carry up to seven years of imprisonment or a maximum fine of 50 million won, approximately $44,577.
On December 17, 2015, Seoul Central District Court acquitted Kato of the criminal defamation charge. Judge Lee Dong-geun, speaking on behalf the three-judge panel, stated that the “the conduct of the defendant was in the realm of freedom of the press” and it was “difficult to conclude that [he] intended to defame the president or libel her as a public figure.” The judge added that “[t]the article by the accused contained things inappropriate, but given that it was written with the public interest in mind, it falls within the area where the freedom of the press should be protected in a democratic society.” Later in December, Seoul public prosecutors indicated they did not plan to appeal the acquittal.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
While this is a significant case in that Kato was acquitted of criminally defaming the South Korean president because of the overriding interest in freedom of press, it does not necessarily set a precedent for South Korea. This was a trial court decision, and the criminal defamation laws remain in effect in the country.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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