SEOUL, South Korea – A Seoul court will issue a verdict Thursday on a Japanese reporter charged with defaming South Korea's president by reporting that she was spending time with a man during a deadly ferry disaster last year.
Prosecutors previously requested an 18-month prison term for Tatsuya Kato of Japan's Sankei Shimbun newspaper over an article that mentioned rumors that President Park Geun-hye was absent for seven hours during the disaster that killed more than 300 people, mostly teenagers.
Kato's lawyer said he's not guilty and that the news story served the public's interest. Critics link Kato's case to a string of incidents by Park's government that they say have infringed upon free speech in South Korea.
Both prosecutors and Kato have one week to appeal following the ruling by the Seoul Central District Court, according to court spokesman Joon Young Maeng.
Park's government came under massive public criticism for its botched rescue operation during the ferry disaster. South Korean media have also questioned whether Park was unaccounted for on the day of the sinking in April 2014.
Park's office has said she wasn't with the man, a former adviser.
Kato's case is being watched by many in South Korea and Japan as the Asian neighbors struggle to mend ties frayed over historical and territorial issues. Japan expressed worries over Kato's indictment last year.
Many South Koreans still resent Japan because of its harsh colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Ties between the countries have worsened since the 2012 inauguration of hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who many South Koreans see as trying to whitewash Japan's colonial abuses.
Kato's paper, the Sankei Shimbun, is reviled by some in South Korea for its right-wing positions.
Others see the case as a test of free speech in South Korea.
"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 whistle blowers, and stifling a free press," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
In January, a Korean-American woman accused of praising rival North Korea during a lecture was deported from South Korea. Late last year, the Constitutional Court ordered the dissolution of a small leftist party that officials say advocated a North Korean-style socialist system.