Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Wednesday condemned the trial of two journalists in South Korea who are charged with defaming President Park Geun-hye's brother as another example of increasing restrictions on free speech in the country.
Criminal proceedings against Kim Ou-joon and Choo Chin-woo have been under way for more than a year. President Park Geun-hye’s brother, Park Ji-man, accuses them of insinuating that he was involved in the 2011 murder of his cousin.
They were acquitted on all charges in a jury trial last year but the prosecutor appealed, without presenting any new evidence, and a Seoul High Court judge is due to issue a verdict on January 16.
Kim presents Naneun Ggomsuda, a podcast created in April 2011 (20 months before President Park’s election), in which Choo criticized inconsistencies in the investigation into the murder of Park Ji-man’s cousin, Park Yongchul.
According to Choo, the police failed to account for many facts and contradictions that cast doubt on the investigation’s hasty conclusions. Claiming he had been defamed, Park Ji-man sued both of them.
“This prosecution is a crude maneuver designed to dissuade journalists from doing their job in a matter of public interest,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the RSF Asia-Pacific desk.
“The work done by Choo and Kim could not only shed new light on the murder but also expose an attempt to hush up the case. The courts must recognize the media’s right to cover public interest matters, regardless of their sensitivity. They must also refrain from applying defamation laws that provide for jail sentences and thereby encourage self-censorship and endanger freedom of information.”
Domestic critics and global rights monitors have accused Park Geun-hye's administration of using defamation charges and the country's strict National Security Law to suppress freedom of speech and silence opposition voices.
The Korean Union of Media Workers issued a statement on January 7 accusing the authorities of trying to intimidate the two journalists.
South Korea has been falling in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index for the past three years and is now ranked 57th out of 180 countries.
On Wednesday, authorities arrested a former leftist politician for remarks praising North Korea — in violation of the country’s National Security Act.
A Korean-American woman was deported at the weekend on similar charges and barred from re-entering the country for five years.
Another high-profile defamation trial underway in Seoul involves a Japanese journalist, Tatsuya Kato, the former Seoul bureau chief of the conservative Sankei Shimbun newspaper.
Kato has been charged with criminal libel punishable by up to seven years' jail for allegedly defaming President Park. He said Thursday that a ban on his leaving the country had been extended by another three months.
South Korean defamation law focuses on whether what was said or written was in the public interest — rather than whether it was true.
Additional reporting by AFP