– Travel ban lifted on former Sankei Shimbun bureau chief charged with defaming SKorean president on day of Sewol ferry disaster.
By Alex Jensen
SEOUL – A Japanese reporter at the centre of controversy over press freedom in South Korea was allowed to return to his home country on Tuesday – on the basis that he will return.
Tatsuya Kato was last year charged with defaming South Korean President Park Geun-hye, after writing a story concerning her whereabouts during last April’s Sewol ferry disaster that left more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, dead.
He has been on trial at the Seoul Central District Court on charges of defaming Park, and has pleaded not guilty to the charge.
Just two days ahead of the first anniversary of the tragedy, which claimed more than 300 lives, local prosecutors announced the lifting of Kato’s travel ban.
Local news agency Yonhap reported that an exception had been made for the 49-year-old former Sankei Shimbun newspaper Seoul bureau chief on “humanitarian grounds” because his mother is unwell.
Seoul Central District Court already ruled that Kato’s article from last August was groundless – though the Internet and local press had also been awash with claims that the unmarried Park spent April 16, 2014 with a male romantic partner.
With the reporter facing up to seven years in prison, the case has attracted worldwide attention.
Already strained Seoul-Tokyo ties were put under further pressure last October when the Japanese foreign ministry officially expressed its opposition to Kato’s treatment.
Tokyo’s stance followed the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club’s open letter to Seoul’s prosecutor general over its concerns that the indictment “could result in severely interfering with the journalists’ right to reporting.”
But a Sankei Shimbun report from earlier this month also made clear that Kato does not plan to fight the charge against him.
For now, he is back in Japan after flying out of Seoul’s Gimpo International Airport swiftly after his travel ban was lifted.