By Ritsuko Ando
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Sony Corp Chief Executive Officer Kazuo Hirai on Monday praised employees and partners of the company's Hollywood movie studio for standing up to "extortionist efforts" of hackers who attacked Sony Pictures Entertainment.
In his first public comments on the massive cyberattack, which the U.S. government has blamed on North Korea, Hirai said current and former employees of the studio were "the victims of one of the most vicious and malicious cyberattacks we have known in recent history."
The attack came as the company prepared to release "The Interview", a comedy about a fictional plot to assassinate North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. It debilitated Sony Pictures' computer network in November and led to the online leaks of unreleased movies and embarrassing emails.
"Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are... lifelines of Sony and our entertainment business," Hirai said during a presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. He also thanked those who had seen the movie.
He did not take questions from reporters.
Sony initially cancelled the release of "The Interview" after hackers threatened theatres. Following criticism from U.S. President Barack Obama and Hollywood celebrities, it released the film, but although cinemas and pay TV services are showing it, Sony has yet to recoup the up to $88 million it spent on marketing and production.
In addition to the cyberattack, Sony has also been grappling with weak sales at its consumer electronics division, particularly smartphones, and is heading for its fifth net loss in six years.
Sales of its PlayStation 4, however, have been a bright spot: Sony said sales of the video game consoles exceeded 18.5 million units as of Jan. 4, up from 13.5 million at the end of October, showing strong holiday demand.
Analysts said the sales figures were better than expected - Macquarie Research analyst Damian Thong had forecast sales of around 17.5 million. The PS4's performance was especially strong as Microsoft's rival console, the XBox One, was being sold at big discounts in November.
At CES, Sony showcased a new line-up of high definition TVs and said it would start selling a stainless steel version of its wearable SmartWatch 3 from February. The company did not make major announcements on its Xperia smartphones, which have been lagging Apple Inc and Samsung Electronics Co Ltd in sales and are facing increasing pressure from Chinese rivals including Xiaomi.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Miral Fahmy)