SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A trial has begun for a Japanese journalist charged with defaming South Korea's president by reporting rumors that she was absent for seven hours during a ferry disaster in April because she was with a man.
A spokesman from the Seoul Central District Court said Thursday that Tatsuya Kato of Japan's Sankei Shimbun was present in court as his lawyers and prosecutors introduced evidence.
The indictment has raised questions about South Korea's press freedom. Critics accuse South Korean President Park Geun-hye's conservative government of clamping down on journalists in an attempt to control her image.
Prosecutors indicted Kato in October over his Aug. 3 article about Park's whereabouts on the day the Sewol ferry sank and killed more than 300 passengers, mostly teenagers on a school trip.
The 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.
Following Kato's indictment, Japan's Foreign Ministry called in diplomat Kim Won-jin from the South Korean embassy in Japan to protest the prosecutors' move.
Kato, who has been banned from leaving the country, pleaded not guilty to the charges and his lawyers claimed in court that the article was in the public interest, according to court spokesman Kim Dae-hyun. The next court date was set for Dec. 15, Kim said.
Japan's Kyodo News agency reported Kato as saying, "The article was let to Japanese people know about South Koreans' views on President Park."
At the time he wrote the article Kato was the Seoul bureau chief of Sankei, known for its conservative viewpoints. His court battle comes as diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan are at a low point due to a territorial dispute over a small island and conflicts over wartime history.
The case has opened a debate on South Korea's freedom of speech and expression. The Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club in October issued an open letter to the prosecutor general, Kim Jin-tae, expressing concern that Kato's indictment could give an "adverse impact" to the country's journalism environment. Moon Jae-in, an opposition lawmaker who was Park's main rival in the 2012 presidential elections, told reporters on Tuesday that the prosecution's decision to indict Kato was an "embarrassment."