No one is above law, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam warns as she breaks silence on journalist’s controversial arrest

Christy Leung
·4-min read

Hong Kong’s leader warned on Friday that no one was above the law, following the prosecution of a journalist over a search for car owners’ personal details in a public database.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, in Beijing on an official visit, broke her silence on the controversy after RTHK contributor Bao Choy Yuk-ling was arrested on Tuesday.

Choy, 37, had co-produced an episode of the television show Hong Kong Connection on last year’s July 21 mob attack at Yuen Long railway station.

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Hong Kong investigative reporting in the balance after database search arrest, observers say

She was subsequently charged with two counts of making false statements under the Road Traffic Ordinance when searching for personal details of car owners in the database. Choy was released on bail and her case would be mentioned at Fanling Court next Tuesday.

Lam would not comment on the case as it had entered judicial procedures but said: “I can say Hong Kong is a place that exercises the rule of law, which is also our cornerstone. Everyone is equal before the law. There is no selective law enforcement or prosecution.

RTHK contributor Choy Yuk-ling was arrested on Tuesday. Photo: Sam Tsang
RTHK contributor Choy Yuk-ling was arrested on Tuesday. Photo: Sam Tsang

“Please rest assured that press freedom is protected under the Basic Law. We do not suppress journalism but, of course, journalists must obey the law.”

The system, known officially as the Certificate of Particulars of Motor Vehicle, on the Transport Department website enables the user to obtain personal details of car owners including names, addresses and identity card numbers.

Choy was accused of violating the Road Traffic Ordinance by using the information she obtained in May and June for a purpose other than what she had stated when applying for access.

Police said the investigation was prompted by a complaint from a member of the public and a referral from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data.

Please rest assured that press freedom is protected under the Basic Law

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong leader

Her arrest triggered immediate alarm and condemnation among journalist groups, scholars and opposition politicians, who accused police of using the law to suppress regular reporting activities and creating a chilling effect on investigative journalism.

Doreen Weisenhaus, former media law scholar at the University of Hong Kong, said obtaining and using public records for reporting had always been an “accepted and legal method” in journalism in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

“Journalists are exempted from the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance for the collection and disclosure of data in the public interest,” said Weisenhaus, who is now director of media law and policy initiatives at Northwestern University in the United States.

“There is no doubt that this publicly available information was in the public interest for identifying individuals involved in the mob attack in Yuen Long last July.”

She said she failed to see the legal grounds for prosecuting a journalist over a false statement under the Road Traffic Ordinance.

Security chief John Lee has said the investigation was the result of a complaint. Photo: K. Y. Cheng
Security chief John Lee has said the investigation was the result of a complaint. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

The Transport Department’s online application form requires a declaration of purpose before accessing the car ownership database. The form used to have the option “others”, where journalists could fill in their investigative purpose in a blank space. But since the form was changed in October last year, the option has become “traffic and transport related matters”.

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Weisenhaus argued that even if a journalist chose the new option, it would still be within the law as discovering the owner or driver of a vehicle could still be seen as traffic-related. Even if the statement was alleged to be fake, it did not amount to the level of falseness “in a material particular” as required by the law, she said.

Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu on Wednesday said police investigated the case as a result of a complaint and dismissed suggestions that the media industry was being targeted.

“It is a reactive investigation ... It is the case’s circumstances that decide what is the subject of investigation,” he said.

This article No one is above law, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam warns as she breaks silence on journalist’s controversial arrest first appeared on South China Morning Post

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