A Seoul court has acquitted a Japanese reporter of defaming South Korea's president by reporting that she was spending time with a man during a deadly ferry disaster last year.

Thursday's ruling by the Seoul Central District Court comes as the government of President Park Geun-hye faces criticism that it has clamped down on journalists and infringed upon free speech.

Prosecutors last year indicted Tatsuya Kato of Japan's conservative Sankei Shimbun newspaper over the article that listed rumors that Park was absent for seven hours during the disaster that killed more than 300 people.

Kato's lawyer said his story serves the public's interest.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry said earlier Thursday that it had asked the Justice Ministry to consider Japan's request for leniency on Kato.