An award-winning Hong Kong news producer has been found guilty of criminal conduct after she accessed a public database while investigating an attack at a city metro station in 2019.
The case against Bao Choy, a producer for the public broadcaster RTHK, has become a focal point for Hong Kong authorities’ clampdown on the city’s press. Large crowds gathered outside court on Thursday in support of Choy, chanting and holding placards.
She avoided a prison sentence, but was fined HKD$6,000 (£550), according to local media.
Choy was convicted of two counts of making false statements in order to access a vehicle plate database while researching a story for the current affairs show Hong Kong Connection. The respected news programme was investigating the police response to the attack in Yuen Long that left 45 people needing treatment in hospital.
On the night, police failed to attend emergency calls from Yuen Long for more than half an hour and made no arrests. Their actions were widely criticised and prompted accusations of collusion, which were exacerbated when pictures emerged of police officers standing alongside the attackers. Police have strenuously denied the accusations of collusion.
Hong Kong Connection used the licence plate searches to connect cars seen at Yuen Long to people involved in the attack, and revealed links between alleged attackers and influential pro-Beijing village committees.
The form to access the records provides tick boxes for only three reasons: legal proceedings, sale or purchase of vehicle, and other traffic and transport related reasons. Prosecutors argued Choy made a false declaration by ticking the third.
“Reporting and newsgathering is not connected to traffic and transport related matters,” the magistrate, Ivy Chui, said, according to local media.
The verdict came a day after Hong Kong Connection won a press award for the episode, 7.21 Who Owns the Truth. Judges said they gave it the Kam Yiu-yu Press Freedom award because the report “raised important leads that the people in power refused to respond to”. It also noted the “detailed and professional use of public records” by the team.
Choy told media the verdict was “a ruling on journalism in Hong Kong”, adding: “It’s heartbreaking the magistrate would decide that searching public information … is no longer allowed.”
Choy said those who had seen the episode knew its value, and of the high standard of RTHK’s investigative journalists.
Chris Yeung, the head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, said Choy’s prosecution was a “wrong decision”, and the association was deeply grieved and angered by the outcome. “Today a reporter was convicted for … fulfilling her duty,” Yeung said. “This is a day of shame for Hong Kong.”
The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club blamed the government for the actions against Choy and said a dangerous precedent had been set. “They [the actions] open the door to further legal action against journalists for engaging in routine reporting,” it said. “They will also deter journalists from accessing legally available public records in Hong Kong.”
RTHK, a publicly funded broadcaster that also publishes in English, has been a key focus of Hong Kong authorities’ efforts to stifle press freedom in the city. While editorially independent, government authorities have launched investigations into conduct, publicly criticised its editorial lines, and in February replaced the director – who had abruptly resigned – with Patrick Li, Hong Kong’s deputy secretary for home affairs, who has no media experience and who has announced numerous programme cancellations.
Last month RTHK also tried to withdraw already submitted entries to two prominent journalism awards, but was refused, Hong Kong Free Press reported.
On Wednesday Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said RTHK was being “subjected to a full-blown intimidation campaign by the government with the aim of restricting its editorial autonomy”.
It made the comments in the release of its annual press freedom rankings, finding Hong Kong remained at 80th in the world, far below its 2002 high of 18th when the rankings first began.
RSF said the national security law imposed on the city by Beijing last June allowed the Chinese government to “intervene directly in Hong Kong in order to arbitrarily punish what it regards as crimes against the state”, which was “especially dangerous” for journalists.
In response the Hong Kong government said press operated freely in the city, and it was “appalled” by RSF’s comments, which it said “seemed to suggest that people with a particular profession should be immune to legal sanctions”.
“Criminals who break the law must face justice,” the government spokesman said.