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Trial of MBC producers on defamation charges is an "act of revenge", says RSF

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders calls for the immediate withdrawal of defamation charges against Neung Hee Cho, Il Jun Song, Bo Seul Kim, Choon Keun Lee and Eun Hee Kim. The four producers and one writer were employed in 2008 by the Seoul-based TV station MBC's investigative programme PD Notebook. Their trial began in Seoul on 9 September 2009.

The charges are the result of a March complaint by the former agriculture minister and senior government officials over an April 2008 programme that examined the possibility of catching mad cow disease from imported American beef. MBC issued a formal apology after the broadcast, acknowledging that it contained translation errors.

"It is unacceptable that this trial should take place," Reporters Without Borders said. "We urge the Seoul prosecutor's office to drop the charges against these journalists, who are the victims of an act of revenge for doing a programme about US beef. We also urge the judge to quickly clear them. It is outrageous that prison sentences can be envisaged for mere translation errors. If the journalists are convicted, it will set a dangerous precedent for South Korean democracy."

After the initial hearing on 9 September, headed by judge Moon Sung Guan, five other hearings have been scheduled. After the last of these, on 3 February 2010, the court will have a couple of months to reach a verdict. The defendants are facing the possibility of five-year jail sentences.

The MBC production team was formally indicted on 18 June for allegedly defaming two former senior government officials, Jung Woon Chun and Min Dong Suk, and "obstructing the commercial activities of certain US beef import companies by disseminating false information." Some of the accused were detained for 48 hours, during which time they insisted on their right to remain silent.

Three months prior to that, on 25 March, one of the programme's producers, Choon-Keun Lee, was arrested at night and forcibly escorted to the office of the Seoul public prosecutor for questioning about the programme, which had prompted a wave of protests in South Korea when it was broadcast. Five other MBC employees were detained.

A Reporters Without Borders representative went to MBC headquarters in March to express the organisation's solidarity with the station's journalists, some of whom had not left the premises for several months for fear of being arrested.

One of the journalists recently told Reporters Without Borders that he was in the process of gathering evidence of his innocence with the help of his colleagues and his lawyer.

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