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L.A. Reporter Convicted of Slander in S. Korea

Media: Fine of $1,800 for Richard Choi is relatively light. He spent 20 days in jail after airing a story about a company's economic problems.

February 18, 1998|MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles radio journalist Richard Choi, who was arrested in South Korea after broadcasting a report about the financial troubles of a South Korean company, was found guilty of slander Tuesday in a Seoul court and fined $1,800.

"This has been unreal," Choi, 49, said in a telephone interview from Seoul. "Can you imagine this? I'm just a reporter doing a story and they arrested me and put me in jail. I'm very, very angry."

He said he may appeal the verdict.

Despite his conviction, Choi's colleagues and Southland supporters pointed to the light sentence as evidence of the weak case against him. Under South Korean law, Choi could have been sentenced to up to five years in jail.

"We feel this is a human rights violation of an American citizen," said Jang-hee Lee, president of Radio Korea, KBLA-AM (1580), which broadcast his report. "What we don't understand is how they found him guilty."

Choi, a popular news anchor for Radio Korea, was arrested at his Seoul hotel on Dec. 19, days after reporting on rumored economic problems of the Korea Times, a Seoul-based media group that owns a rival radio station in Los Angeles.

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He was charged with malicious slander under a Korean libel law that prohibits reporting rumors that could threaten a company's economic stability. It was one of the first times a journalist has been charged under the law, Lee said.

In his broadcast, Choi reported that the Korea Times had been hurt by the Asian economic crisis and was considering a merger with the Hyundai Group.

The Korea Times, which publishes a Los Angeles edition, said Choi intentionally broadcast the story to hurt the company and its rival radio station. After the broadcast, the company filed suit against Choi, leading to his arrest.

"I'm a journalist," Choi said Tuesday. "Can you believe that one newspaper could go and put me in jail? The media should protect other journalists."

Korea Times officials said the case was about libel, not freedom of press.

"From the start, what we hoped for was a resolution of the case according to South Korean laws," said a statement released by the company Tuesday. "That is what has happened."

Choi's detention sparked outrage among local journalists and was denounced by a coalition of Korean American and African American leaders in Los Angeles who demanded his release.

Supporters held a candlelight vigil in Los Angeles on Jan. 6 to pressure the South Korean government to drop the charges. The next day, after 20 days in a Seoul jail, Choi was released on his own recognizance.

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On Tuesday, Los Angeles supporters said they would continue to fight to clear Choi of all charges.

"I consider him absolutely innocent," said Richard Elkins, executive director of the Congress of Racial Equality. "We're talking about 1st Amendment rights here, one of our strongest principles. I think the sentence was really an effort to save face."

The incident has also drawn criticism from journalism watchdog groups, who warned that Choi's arrest signaled declining freedom for journalists in Asia.

Choi, who originally went to Seoul for a week in December to cover the presidential elections, said he was looking forward to his long-delayed return to Los Angeles.

Although his wife flew to South Korea to be with him after his arrest, his two daughters have remained here. He may not see them for two more months if he appeals the ruling.

"The first thing I have to do when I get back is hug my kids," he said.

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