A Hong Kong magistrate’s suggestion for how reporters could obtain information from a government database without falling foul of the law that ensnared an RTHK contributor is simply unrealistic, according to lawyers and analysts.
Legal experts questioned whether Principal Magistrate Ivy Chui Yee-mei gave enough weight to constitutional human rights provisions when finding freelance producer Bao Choy Yuk-ling guilty of providing false statements to secure access to an official database on car ownership.
“The judgment has not considered the public interest and the freedom of press,” human rights law scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun, from the University of Hong Kong, told a radio programme on Friday.
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Beijing’s foreign ministry office in Hong Kong hit back at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club and “individual external forces”, a day after the journalists’ body condemned Choy’s conviction.
“No one or no organisation can interfere with the internal affairs of Hong Kong and China on the pretext of press freedom,” a spokesman from the commissioner’s office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
He accused the group of seeking privilege by “upending right and wrong”, and using the name of press freedom to obstruct the government and undermine the city’s stability.
On Thursday, Chui convicted Choy – a 37-year-old freelance producer with the city’s public broadcaster RTHK – on two counts of knowingly making a false statement under the Road Traffic Ordinance, and fined her HK$6,000 (US$773).
She was found by West Kowloon Court to have twice deceived the Transport Department by using car ownership details obtained from the government database for news reporting, rather than the transport-related purpose she declared when seeking access.
Choy searched the database during the making of an award-winning documentary critical of how police handled a mob attack at Yuen Long railway station during the 2019 anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
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Choy’s conviction came on the heels of the government’s wider campaign to tighten up access to information in public records, as officials said there was a need to stem doxxing – the malicious revelation of personal details – resulting from the civil unrest.
Among other things, the government earlier this month unveiled its plan to phase out the practice of the Companies Registry providing a director’s address and full identity card number.
It also announced it would no longer provide full names of voters for journalists’ inspection, a key source of information that led to reports on election fraud. Various new restrictions were also placed on access to birth and marriage certificates, while the city’s courts have also stopped providing the address of a defendant and details of police officers in charge of each case.
Keith Richburg, director of journalism at the University of Hong Kong, noted the trend and described Choy’s case as “one more blow” to press freedom in the city.
“It is going to be much much harder if journalists can’t access this data,” he said.
The principal magistrate said that if the true purpose for wanting to retrieve car ownership details was not listed on the online form, applicants could instead make written submissions directly to the Transport Department.
But Bruce Lui Ping-kuen, senior journalism lecturer at Baptist University, insisted the suggestion would be “unrealistic”, saying there was bound to be a conflict of interest if the subject of the investigation was a government official.
Chan, the legal scholar, said the suggestion contradicted the magistrate’s own decision in which she ruled the relevant legislation was only intended to allow public access to car ownership details for transport-related matters.
Barrister Anson Wong Yu-yat said the argument of whether the restriction constituted a breach of the Basic Law was not put forward by Choy’s lawyers, so the topic was not explored during the trial. He said Choy’s lawyers could raise that legal argument if she decided to lodge an appeal.
He said affected journalists could also lodge a judicial challenge if they were denied access to information based on the fact they would use it for their reporting.
A spokesman from the Transport Department said journalists were not excluded from the database, but the information they accessed had to be used in reports related to traffic and transport matters.
Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a member of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s cabinet and a former chairman of the Bar Association, suggested the government consider letting senior representatives of media outlets, instead of individual journalists, apply for car ownership details.
“Journalists have no privilege. You can’t say that you don’t have to obey the laws because you are a journalist,” he told an RTHK programme.
Choy used the information when co-producing an episode of the television show Hong Kong Connection on the incident at Yuen Long MTR station on July 21, 2019, when a white-clad mob with metal rods and rattan canes attacked commuters and protesters.
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