Sony chief thanks supporters after cyber attack that derailed movie launch

Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai speaking at the Sony press conference at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada on Jan 5, 2015. Mr Hirai on Monday spoke for the first time publicly about the cyber attack that derailed the launch of controversia
Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai speaking at the Sony press conference at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada on Jan 5, 2015. Mr Hirai on Monday spoke for the first time publicly about the cyber attack that derailed the launch of controversial comedy The Interview, calling the assault "vicious and malicious". -- PHOTO: REUTERS

LAS VEGAS (AFP) - Sony chief Kazuo Hirai on Monday spoke for the first time publicly about the cyber attack that derailed launch of controversial comedy The Interview, calling the assault "vicious and malicious".

Hirai thanked supporters who stood by the company in the face of the devastating cyber assault, including employees and movie-goers who saw the film when it finally hit theatres.

"Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of association - those are important lifelines of Sony and our entertainment business," Mr Hirai said at a press event.

His comments on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas marked his first public statements about the attack on the Japanese company's film and television unit.

"We are proud of partners who stood up against extortionist efforts by criminals who attacked Sony," Mr Hirai said.

Sony employees, he added, "were victims of one of the most vicious and malicious cyber attacks we have known, certainly in recent history."

The Interview is now showing at 580 independent theatres in the US, in addition to online platforms, according to Hirai.

"I want to thank all the partners who made this possible, media who supported the launch, and those who have gone out to see the movie," Mr Hirai said.

"Thank you for being part of that great event," he added, before ending with a quip referring to another Sony Pictures Entertainment film released during the year-end holidays. "Annie is a great movie as well."

The late November cyber attack against Sony led to an online leak of employee information, unreleased films and embarrassing in-house emails.

The hackers also mounted threats against Sony over the planned Christmas release of The Interview, which depicts a fictional CIA plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

US investigators have said the North, which has repeatedly denied involvement, was behind the attack, but some experts have raised doubts about the conclusions of the FBI probe.

US President Barack Obama last week authorised a new layer of sanctions on several Pyongyang institutions and officials, in retaliation for the alleged cyber attack on Sony Pictures.

North Korea on Sunday lashed out at the fresh sanctions, criticising Washington for refusing a proposed joint investigation.

The impoverished but nuclear-armed state was already heavily sanctioned following a series of nuclear and missile tests staged in violation of UN resolutions.

Pyongyang, which repeatedly slammed the movie as an "act of terror", praised the hacking attack as a "righteous deed" possibly staged by its sympathisers.

The isolated country last month suffered several mysterious Internet outages. The Obama administration denied comment on whether it was linked to the blackouts.