Japan journalist found not guilty of defaming S Korean president

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In this Oct. 19, 2015, photo, Tatsuya Kato, a former Seoul bureau chief of Japan's Sankei Shimbun, arrives at Seoul Central District Court in Seoul, South Korea.Image source, Associated Press
Image caption,
Tatsuya Kato had said his report was in the public interest

A Japanese journalist has been found not guilty of defaming South Korea's President Park Geun-hye.

In a report in Japan's Sankei Shimbun, Tatsuya Kato repeated rumours about Ms Park's whereabouts on the day of the Sewol ferry disaster.

Prosecutors were asking for an 18-month prison term. Mr Kato denied it was defamation and said the report was in the public interest.

Critics had said the decision to prosecute infringed on free speech.

The ferry sinking in April 2014 killed more than 300 people - mostly teenagers on a school trip. Ms Park's government has faced a huge public backlash for its handling of the rescue operation.

'False information'

Many South Koreans newspapers questioned why Ms Park was not involved in the initial hours after the accident.

Mr Kato, who is the former Seoul bureau chief for his newspaper, wrote an article that repeated rumours that Ms Park had been with a man at the time.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Ms Park is not married and has no children

The prosecution said this was based on "false information". Ms Park's office has denied she was with the man at that time.

The Seoul district court judge said that while what Mr Kato wrote was inappropriate, he should be protected by the freedom of speech in a democratic society.

'Nationalistic stance?'

The BBC's Kevin Kim in Seoul says the journalist has argued that he was targeted because the paper is often criticised in South Korea for a nationalistic editorial stance.

The case has strained diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan. Historically, some people in South Korea and China feel Japanese leaders show a lack of remorse over Japan's wartime aggressions.

In particular, the disagreement of the existence of Korean "comfort women" - which Korea says were women forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War Two.