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Samsung drops civil suit against columnist

The South Korean technology giant says it reached a consensus with a British-born newspaper columnist who wrote a satirical piece that commented about its chairman. He still faces criminal charges.

May 13, 2010|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Seoul —

Technology giant Samsung Electronics has dropped its civil lawsuit against a freelance newspaper columnist here, saying both parties had reached a "common consensus" over a Christmas Day 2009 column that poked fun at the company and its top executives.

The British-born columnist, Michael Breen, still faces criminal defamation charges for the satirical column he wrote for the Korea Times that included comments about Samsung and its chairman, Lee Kun-hee.

The company had sued Breen, as well as the newspaper and its editor, for $1 million, citing the column's "mocking tone" and "baseless, malicious and offensive false information." But the editor and the paper were dropped from the suit after the Korea Times ran a pair of clarifications.

Breen said that the column was obvious satire and that the company overreacted.

The case highlights how South Korea's views of defamation, satire and free speech differ from those of many Western nations.

Samsung officials said Wednesday that they considered the matter a case of mutual misunderstanding.

"We didn't want to have a legal war with Michael Breen," said Hwang Eun-ju, a member of Samsung Electronics' corporate communications team. "That was not our intention."

"Breen accepted that he went beyond parody, and we accepted that somehow the column could be considered black humor. We reached a common consensus."

Samsung spokesman James Chung said the company decided to drop the lawsuit after Breen sent a letter of apology on May 7.

After a judge recently reduced Samsung's damage claim to $25,000, Breen contested that ruling and said he was prepared to go to trial.

"I'm a little disappointed," Breen said of the company's decision to drop the suit. "I was very confident that there had been no malicious intent. It was a harmless joke. I was waiting to be vindicated."

Breen's column poked fun at past legal scandals involving Lee, writing that the company had sent out holiday greeting cards "to the country's politicians, prosecutors and journalists along with [$50,000] gift certificates."

In South Korea, such satirical humor is rare. And the nation's civil and criminal codes for defamation are stricter than in many other countries.

john.glionna@latimes.com

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