The first time a member of the news media has faced prosecution in the Chinese territory for an act of reporting. A journalist form Hong Kong found guilty after exposing police failings on Thursday.
The Washington Post (WaPo) reported that the verdict against 37-year-old Choy Yuk-ling, also known as Bao Choy, highlights the deterioration of media freedoms in Hong Kong, supposedly protected under the law, as China remodels the city after imposing a draconian national security law.
“This prosecution is part of a continuing strategy by the government of using the legal system to crackdown on dissent, which now includes anyone — including investigative journalists — who attempts to challenge the government’s official narrative,” said Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and writer.
Choy, a former staff producer and freelancer for public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), was arrested in November and accused of breaching the law for accessing a public database of car registrations.
WaPo reported she was seeking to obtain vehicle license plate information — a standard procedure that Hong Kong journalists practice when fact-checking or reporting investigative stories. She pleaded not guilty.
The license plate information was used in a documentary for RTHK, investigating the failure of police to prevent a pro-Beijing mob from attacking pro-democracy protesters and commuters at a subway station in July 2019.
The incident was one of the most consequential of the 2019 protests in Hong Kong and undermined confidence in the police, who showed up only after the mob had left and dozens were injured. Police have since worked to rewrite the narrative of that night, presenting it as a clash between “evenly matched rivals.”
According to WaPo, a day before her verdict, Choy’s documentary episode won the Kam Yiu-yu Press Freedom Award, among the highest journalistic honours in Hong Kong. The award jury said the work raised “important leads that the people in power refused to respond to,” adding that it was a “detailed and professional use of public records.” The episode was titled “7.21: Who Owns the Truth.”
In delivering her verdict, the court judge said that the public does not have “absolute rights” to access documents under Hong Kong law and that Choy should have been truthful while trying to access the database. Choy’s reasons for accessing the database, the judge added, do not matter.
It was further reported that press associations condemned Choy’s initial arrest and said rules have been changed to deliberately ensnare reporters. Journalists accessing the car registration database were once able to input their information and profession under a category labelled “others” until the option was removed, effectively restricting reporters’ access to the data.
Hong Kong’s ranking in the world press freedom index remained at 80th out of 180 countries this year, though it has plummeted from 18th in 2002. Reporters Without Borders cited new threats posed by the national security law and “a full-blown intimidation campaign” toward RTHK by the government.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing Thursday, Choy said the judgment would affect the entire media landscape. “My continuation of my work in journalism is the best answer to this verdict,” she said.
China imposed the draconian National Security Law in Hong Kong last year. The law criminalises secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces and carries with it strict prison terms. It came into effect on July 1. Since then, a number of former pro-democracy lawmakers have been arrested.