A reporter with a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong accused of making a false statement when accessing a government car registry has been let off the hook after prosecutors agreed to drop the charge on condition of a binding-over order.
The prosecution’s decision stood in marked contrast to the justice department’s handling of a case last year involving an RTHK contributor accused of the same act, prompting Principal Magistrate Ivy Chui Yee-mei to question the difference in approach at Thursday’s hearing.
Ta Kung Pao senior editor Wong Wai-keung was expected to enter a plea on a count of knowingly making a false statement over his use of personal information obtained from the Transport Department in the paper’s front-page story on August 16 last year.
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Instead, the 48-year-old was placed on a HK$2,000 bond for a year during his appearance at West Kowloon Court – meaning he will be spared a criminal record if he commits no offences over the period – after the prosecution agreed not to pursue the matter further.
Last November, the justice department charged Bao Choy Yuk-ling, a freelance producer with Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK, with two counts of the same offence in relation to an investigation for a documentary critical of how police handled a mob attack at a railway station during 2019’s anti-government unrest.
Chui convicted Choy of both charges in April before issuing a HK$6,000 fine and leaving her with a criminal record.
The ruling sparked an outcry from journalist groups over concerns of shrinking press freedoms at a time when the government is tightening access to public records.
In response, senior public prosecutor Vincent Lee Ting-wai told the court the justice department had applied the same standard in handling both cases, but refused to comment on Choy’s case, saying an appeal was pending.
Asked by reporters outside the court about the prosecution’s decision, Lee said: “It was a one-off incident. He is of clear record and gainfully employed.”
At a previous hearing last month, Chui also questioned why the prosecution had only issued Wong a summons when they had detained Choy for questioning before prosecuting her by way of a charge sheet.
RTHK freelance producer Bao Choy convicted over charges relating to Yuen Long mob attack documentary
But Lee dismissed allegations of differential treatment and insisted the department had prosecuted both defendants in the same manner.
The prosecution alleged that Wong, who specialises in performing searches on public records for his newspaper, abused what is officially known as the Certificate of Particulars of Motor Vehicle when accessing the Transport Department website.
Applicants seeking car ownership data are required to indicate the purpose of their search from one of three options: “legal proceedings”, “sale and purchase of vehicles” and “other traffic and transport-related matters”. News reporting is not an available choice.
Wong chose the third option when he requested the personal information of a private car owner on August 15 last year.
The owner’s name, written in both Chinese and English, and the car plate number were contained in Ta Kung Pao’s top story the next day, which accused fugitive politician Ted Hui Chi-fung of harassing the newspaper’s journalists. The report accused the private car concerned, driven by one of Hui’s supporters, of tailing its reporters.
Under the Road Traffic Ordinance, anyone who knowingly makes a false statement faces up to six months’ imprisonment and a HK$5,000 fine.
This article Hong Kong prosecutors questioned by magistrate after letting reporter from pro-Beijing newspaper walk on same charge pursued against RTHK freelancer first appeared on South China Morning Post