SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- A Seoul court on Thursday 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, South Korean media reported.
The ruling by the Seoul Central District Court, reported by Yonhap news agency, comes as the government of President Park Geun-hye faces criticism that it has clamped down on journalists and infringed upon free speech. The court didn't immediately return calls seeking confirmation.
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, mostly teenagers.
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.
Prosecutors have one week to appeal, according to court spokesman Joon Young Maeng.
Park's government came under massive public criticism for its botched rescue operation during the ferry disaster. South Korean media have also questioned whether Park was unaccounted for on the day of the sinking in April 2014.
Park's office has said she wasn't with the man, a former adviser.
Kato's case is being watched by many in South Korea and Japan as the Asian neighbors struggle to mend ties frayed over historical and territorial issues. Japan expressed worries over Kato's indictment last year.