South Korea’s former President Park Geun-hye has been indicted for corruption. Impeached by lawmakers late last year and officially removed from office by the country’s high court last March, the former leader now faces the prospect of life in prison.
Before this, as she got deeper into controversies, Park used heavy-handed tactics against the media that were critical of her regime. The Sankei Shimbun was one of them.
On December 2, 2016, a memo believed to be from the Secretary to the President of Korea was revealed, indicating that the Executive Office of the President had given a specific instruction on the case of Tatsuya Kato, former Seoul bureau chief of the Sankei Shimbun. Kato had been acquitted by the Seoul Central District Court in December 2015 after being indicted without detention for criminally libeling President Park Geun-hye in his article.
In a press conference that December, the National Union of Media Workers (NUMW) released the document, claiming that the handwritten memo was provided by the family of Kim Young-han, who worked as the Senior Secretary to the Civil Affairs in the Executive Office of the President and who passed away in August 2016. His job was to oversee prosecutions when Kato was indicted in 2014.
The section of the memo where the Executive Office of the President demanded that Kato “must accept legal responsibility” was written in 2014, between August 7 (when the prosecutor banned Kato from leaving the country) and October 6, just before his indictment without arrest.
The memo states on August 7, when the departure ban was imposed: “Do not forget the Sankei. It must be punished. A national intelligence service team must be organized in combination with the police and a list must be made in order to pursue and punish the culprits.”
At the beginning, there is the character “cho,” which suggests that this may have been a proposal made by Kim Ki-choon, the head or “cho” of the Presidential Secretary’s Office.
Two days later, on August 9, this appeared: “Sankei special correspondent [should be] replaced. Immigration Visa Duty Officer.”
The following day, the following appeared: “Defaming our head of state in the name of freedom of speech is unforgivable.”
Then, on October 5, the following is recorded:“Justice Minister – No extenuating circumstances for Sankei bureau chief. Keeping a close watch on international and domestic freedom of speech.
On October 6, two days before the indictment without arrest, there were accounts such as:
- “Following the Sankei solution, preparations for the aftermath. Problems expected. Comfort women problem, Japanese government expected to stage a recovery.”
- “Expectations that other problems will be interlinked and reported. Explanation to freedom-of-speech groups.”
- “Explanation to main government agencies, minimization of repercussions of explanations of attitudes at the time.”
Takeshi Kobayashi, managing director in charge of editing at the Sankei Shimbun, said: “If the memo made public on this occasion is true, the investigation and indictment without arrest of Tatsuya Kato, the former Seoul bureau chief, indicates that the Executive Office of the President has targeted a specific news organization and we have no choice but to be extremely indignant. We shall keep a close watch on the course of events from now on.”
The memo, which revealed the strong determination of the Executive Office of the President to severely punish Mr. Kato in court, sparked concerns that it would have increasing repercussions overseas and domestically.
By saying that “Libeling our head of state in the name of freedom of speech is unforgivable,” the Executive Office of the President at the time made a direct challenge to freedom of speech. Prime Minister Fuan Gyoan, the Minister of Justice, appeared to be saying as well, “There is no reason to consider any extenuating circumstances in the case of the Sankei bureau chief.”
When criticism from overseas media began to emerge, directives were made, saying, “Keeping a close watch on international and domestic freedom of speech” and “Explanation to freedom-of-speech organizations.” They knew they created a crisis when they resorted to repression of speech.