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A South Korean court has cleared a Japanese journalist of defaming President Park Geun-hye, ending a criminal prosecution that had fuelled fears of a crackdown on dissent.

Tatsuya Kato, Seoul bureau chief of the Sankei Shimbun newspaper, was charged last year with defaming Ms Park in an article that questioned her whereabouts on the day of last year’s Sewol ferry sinking, in which 304 people died.

The article referred to widespread rumours — strongly denied by the presidential office — that the president could not be found for seven hours because she was engaged in a tryst with a former aide.

“The article showed considerable impropriety,” Yonhap news agency quoted judge Lee Donggeun as saying at the Seoul Central District Court. “However, it is difficult to conclude that he had the intent to defame the president as a public figure.” Mr Lee dismissed the defamation charge, for which prosecutors had demanded an 18-month jail term.

“My article focused on the whereabouts of the highest authority in the nation on the day of a major disaster,” Mr Kato told a press conference after the verdict. “This served the public interest . . . I want to ask whether the Korean prosecutors targeted me because I am a Japanese journalist.”

Japanese diplomats had also worried that this case could be politically motivated. The bilateral relationship has soured in recent years over what South Korea sees as Tokyo’s refusal to take responsibility for the sexual enslavement of Korean women during the second world war.

After sustained lobbying from Washington for a rapprochement between its key regional allies, Ms Park last month held her first bilateral summit with Mr Abe since both took power nearly three years ago, though subsequent talks on the historical dispute have failed to yield a breakthrough.

But the fact Mr Kato faced a possible prison term over his article drew condemnation from rights groups. “Criminal defamation laws like South Korea’s have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and work against the public interest by gagging critics and whistleblowers, and stifling a free press,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

Ms Park has faced criticism at home and overseas for perceived efforts to crack down on dissent, including last year’s creation by police and prosecutors of an investigative unit to pursue online defamation, two days after the president complained that the rumours about her private life had “gone too far”.

Last month brought the biggest demonstration in Seoul for seven years, against labour reforms and the government’s decision to reintroduce state-authored history textbooks. The rally descended into violence and police say they are considering charging one of its main organisers with sedition— a crime of which no one has been convicted in South Korea since 1987, the last year of military rule.

Additional reporting by Kang Buseong

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