When Los Angeles radio journalist Richard Choi went to Seoul in December to cover the South Korean presidential election, he planned on staying no more than a week.
Two months later, after his arrest and conviction for slander--and the international controversy surrounding it--Choi returned home Friday, weary from his unforeseen extended stay.
The popular Radio Korea talk show host was jailed Dec. 19 after he broadcast a story about the rumored financial problems of a rival media company.
His prosecution drew protests from journalism watchdog groups and a coalition of local Korean American and African American supporters.
On Friday, Choi and his wife stepped off the plane at Los Angeles International Airport and embraced their daughters, Jennifer, 21, and Yvonne, 17.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” the journalist said later. “What can I say? I’m just so glad to be back.”
Choi, 49, was found guilty of slander Feb. 16 and fined $1,800--a considerably lighter sentence than the one-year jail term the prosecution was seeking. He was considering appealing the ruling, he said, but changed his mind when friends told him an appeal would keep him in Seoul for several more months.
When he retrieved his passport from Korean authorities Thursday, the broadcaster was told he is prohibited from returning to South Korea for two years.
“It’s a very sad, sad story,” said Choi, who grew up in South Korea and served in the army. “I’m a journalist. I reported a story, and I suddenly found myself in jail.”
During his 20-day detention, Choi said, he tried to keep his spirits up by exercising, reading books and teaching the other inmates English.
His wife, Youngyun, who flew to Seoul when he was arrested, was allowed to visit him once a day. “This has been like a bad dream,” she said.
Choi’s broadcast about how the Korean economic crisis was affecting media companies apparently violated a “malicious slander” law that prohibits reporting rumors that could threaten the financial stability of a company.
Observers said the incident was exacerbated by the climate of economic panic in Korea and the long-standing Southland rivalry between Choi’s station KBLA-AM (1580) and the Korea Times, which owns a competing Los Angeles radio station. Korea Times officials accused him of deliberately trying to damage their company.
Choi denied that his report was motivated by any attempt to undermine the Korea Times.
“I’m a journalist and a reporter, and it was a story everyone was talking about,” he said. “What are you going to do, not report the story?”
Los Angeles supporters who pressured Korean officials to release Choi hailed his return as the result of a cooperative effort between local Korean Americans and African Americans.
“If the press doesn’t have its 1st Amendment rights protected, we don’t have anyone constantly bringing issues before the people,” said Richard Elkins, California executive director of the Congress of Racial Equality. “As minorities, we cannot have a society in which these rights are not respected.”
Choi’s arrest drew condemnation from an assortment of international journalism groups, including the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which plans to ask the new South Korean president to pardon Choi and rescind the slander law.
“It was terrible that he had to spend time in jail and go through so much hassle over something that, at best, should have been a civil matter,” said A. Lin Neumann, Asia program coordinator for the group. “The bottom line for us is: No journalist should go to jail for what they report.”