South Korean prosecutors seek to jail Japanese journalist

SEOUL: South Korean prosecutors have asked for an 18-month prison term for a Japanese journalist for allegedly defaming South Korea's president by reporting rumors that she was absent for seven hours during a ferry disaster last year because she was with a man, a court official said Tuesday.

Prosecutors said in their closing argument Monday that Tatsuya Kato of Japan's Sankei Shimbun newspaper made no efforts to verify the rumors and thought them as untrue before publishing them in August 2014, said an official from the Seoul Central District Court.

Kato's lawyer countered that it serves the public's interest to report the developments surrounding President Park Geun-hye's whereabouts, according to the official, who didn't want to be named because of office rules. He said the sentencing was scheduled for November 26.

Prosecutors indicted Kato last October over his article about Park's whereabouts on the day of the April 2014 sinking of the ferry Sewol, which killed more than 300 passengers, mostly teenagers on a school trip. Park and her government were criticized for the botched rescue operation on the ferry, and South Korean media had questioned whether she was unaccounted for on the day of the disaster.

The indictment of Kato has raised questions about freedom of the press in South Korea, with critics accusing Park's conservative government of clamping down on journalists in an attempt to control her image.

Reporters Without Borders called for the court to avoid imposing a prison sentence for Kato. "Prosecuting a journalist for questioning the president's actions is inconceivable in a state that regards itself a democracy," Benjamin Ismail, the head of the group's Asia-Pacific office, said in a statement.

Until the late 1980s, South Korea was ruled by a succession of military dictators, including Park's father, Park Chung-hee, who suppressed journalists and dissenters.

Kato's article repeated rumors in South Korean media and the financial industry about a relationship between Park and a former aide who was said to be married at the time. Park's office has denied that she was with the former aide, who also denied the rumors when he appeared in court as a witness in January.