A freelance producer with Hong Kong’s public broadcaster has been convicted of providing false statements and fined HK$6,000 (US$773) over her use of a government database during the making of an award-winning documentary critical of how police handled a mob attack at a railway station during 2019’s social unrest.
The ruling came as police confirmed on Thursday evening that a reporter from pro-Beijing Chinese-language daily Ta Kung Pao was arrested and charged with the same offence after he allegedly searched car ownership details in a government database in August last year.
Police said the 47-year-old man was arrested on February 11 after the force received a complaint from a car owner whose personal information was said to have been published in a news article. The reporter appeared in Eastern Court on April 12. He was expected to appear in court again on May 25.
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Thursday’s ruling at West Kowloon Court sparked an outcry from journalist groups over concerns of shrinking press freedoms at a time when the government is tightening access to public records.
RTHK contributor Bao Choy Yuk-ling was found to have twice deceived the Transport Department by using car ownership details obtained from a government database for news reporting, rather than the transport-related purpose she declared when seeking access.
The 37-year-old was charged with two counts of knowingly making a false statement, an offence punishable by a maximum of six months imprisonment and a HK$5,000 fine under the Road Traffic Ordinance.
She used the information in co-producing an episode of the television show Hong Kong Connection on the incident at Yuen Long MTR station on July 21, 2019.
She was convicted following a trial and fined HK$3,000 (US$387) for each count.
In what was widely regarded as a watershed moment in the 2019 social unrest, a white-clad mob with metal rods and rattan canes attacked commuters and protesters, injuring at least 45 people.
Police’s perceived slow response that night triggered a public outcry, with officers accused of colluding with the assailants. The force has repeatedly denied that allegation, saying officers were stretched battling a protest in the heart of the city.
The 30-minute episode, titled “7.21: Who owns the truth” and airing on July 13 last year, sought to identify those wearing white by reviewing security camera footage obtained from nearby shops and videos posted online.
The programme revealed that shortly before the attack, some of the white-shirted men picked up rattan canes from a seven-seater car parked near the station.
One of the car’s owners, despite not being named in the show, filed a complaint to police, leading to Choy’s arrest in November.
In last month’s trial, prosecutors alleged Choy had been dishonest when she sought access to the government database in May and June last year by ticking “traffic and transport-related matters” as her purpose for wanting the information when she only intended to use the data for reporting.
It is one of three options applicants must select when seeking the data, with the others being “legal proceedings” and “sale and purchase of vehicles”. News reporting is not a choice.
The defence urged the court to adopt a wider definition to include journalistic activities, adding the information involved was of public interest and its retrieval should be deemed legal to protect data access rights.
But Principal Magistrate Ivy Chui Yee-mei said the legislative intent was to confine use of the information to specific purposes to prevent abuse.
“I am of the view that whether the defendant had sought the information out of good faith was unimportant,” Chui said.
“I can be sure that the defendant … knew clearly she made the applications for the purposes of searching, interviewing and reporting, none of which falls under the three options offered by the Transport Department.”
Choy said the ruling had unreasonably and disproportionately restricted press freedom, as well as increased the legal risk inherent in searching open records in the future.
“Today, the court found me liable for a crime, but I firmly believe searching public records is not an offence, and neither is [upholding] press freedom,” she said.
Chris Yeung Kin-hing, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, said the verdict marked “a dark day for the Hong Kong press”.
He criticised the government for undermining press freedom and the public’s right to know, adding officials were in effect sheltering people with something to hide.
The European Union Office to Hong Kong and Macau tweeted Choy’s conviction was a reminder that press freedom could not be taken for granted and the law should not be deployed in a way that stifled legitimate journalism.
The Hong Kong News Executives’ Association urged the government to take all necessary steps to safeguard press freedom, while RTHK’s Programme Advisory Panel called for the broadcaster to retain the episode concerned on their online platforms, as well as help with Choy’s legal expenses.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club said criminal proceedings should never have been started and the move had “set a dangerous precedent” by paving the way for more prosecution of journalists.
Dozens of supporters, many of them RTHK workers, chanted slogans including “Journalism is not a crime” and “Defend press freedom” outside the court building, with a similar number of police officers watching from a distance.
Choy said in January she had been barred from producing further episodes for the 43-year-old programme until the conclusion of the legal proceedings. Her contract expired at the end of that month.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association announced on Wednesday that the episode on the July 21 incident won the Kam Yiu-yu Press Freedom Award, with a judge praising the journalists’ “detailed and professional search on public records”.
An RTHK spokesman, however, said the broadcaster would decline the award as it was reviewing its operations.
Following Choy’s arrest last November, the Transport Department introduced new arrangements in January that would allow car owners to be notified if their personal details were accessed through the database.
The department said the move was aimed at allowing them to “take precautionary measures” against abuse of their personal data.
And if the owners suspected their personal information was being misused, they could seek help from the privacy commissioner or call police, according to the department.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said last month she saw no point in giving reporters privilege to conduct record searches using government databases, stressing the need to prevent doxxing or the weaponising of personal information.
The government has also said other public registers, including those on marriage status, land ownership and company particulars, are under review to determine whether further similar administrative measures to protect data privacy are needed.
Additional reporting by Ng Kang-chung
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