(Seoul) – The South Korean Government should immediately stop using criminal defamation laws to silence the media, Human Rights Watch said today. All laws criminalizing peaceful expression should be repealed.

On November 28, eight aides of President Park Geun-hye filed a criminal defamation complaint against six reporters and staff members working at the newspaper Segye Ilbo for reporting about a leaked document from the president’s office. The leaked document reportedly says the aides regularly briefed a former Park aide even though he had no official government position.

“No one should be imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their views,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “The South Korean government should stop bringing criminal defamation charges against journalists for simply doing their jobs, and pledge to reform laws to end criminalization of defamation.”

In another case on November 27, prosecutors opened a trial in Seoul of Tatsuya Kato, a Japanese journalist accused of criminally defaming President Park for reporting rumors that appeared first in domestic media regarding her whereabouts on the day of the sinking of the MV Sewol passenger ferry.

South Korea's President Park Geun-hye at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil on April 24, 2015.

Human Rights Watch opposes all criminal defamation laws as a disproportionate and unnecessary response to the need to protect reputations, which chill freedom of expression.

International human rights law allows for restrictions on freedom of expression to protect the reputations of others, but such restrictions must be necessary and narrowly drawn. As repeal of criminal defamation laws in an increasing number of countries shows, such laws are not necessary. Civil defamation and criminal incitement laws are sufficient for the purpose of protecting reputations and maintaining public order, and can be written and implemented in ways that provide appropriate protections for freedom of expression.

Criminal defamation law in South Korea focuses solely on whether what was said or written was in the public interest, and not whether it was factually true or not. If the court finds defamatory intent using “facts,” that is, truthful information, a person can still face as many as three years in prison or a fine up to 20 million won ($US 17,830). Defamation using “openly false facts” can result in a prison sentence of up to seven years or fines up to 50 million won ($US 44,577).

“Criminal defamation laws have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and work against the public interest by deterring people from speaking out against misconduct by public officials,” said Robertson. “Journalists in South Korea should not have to look over their shoulder for fear of government intimidation and possible criminal prosecution when they report on sensitive issues and topics.”