An award-winning Hong Kong journalist was found guilty on Thursday of improper search of public database of vehicle licence plates in trying to track down perpetrators of an attack on pro-democracy supporters.
Choy Yuk-ling, a freelance journalist with RTHK, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, was fined HK$6,000 (US$ 775) for trying to trace the owners of vehicles through the Transport Department database under a false pretence.
Ms. Choy’s conviction comes at a time of deepening concerns over press freedom in the international business hub as Beijing stamps out dissent in the wake of huge democracy protests.
The 37-year-old journalist was found guilty on two counts of “knowingly making a false statement” to access number plate ownership records.
“Members of the public do not have an absolute right to obtain any document under this ordinance,” principal magistrate Ivy Chui said.
Ms. Choy faced up to six months in jail but was ultimately fined HK$6,000 (US$770).
Colleagues and members of RTHK’s employee union gathered outside the court holding banners that read “Journalism is not a crime” and “Who wants the public kept in the dark?”
“Though I was found guilty I still believe journalism is not a crime and searching registries is not a crime,” Choy told reporters.
The database searches were made for an RTHK documentary last year called “Who Owns The Truth?” that investigated an attack on protesters by a gang of men armed with clubs and sticks.
The police’s failure to respond quickly enough to the July 2019 assault was a turning point in the huge and often violent protests that year, further hammering public trust in the force.
RTHK used footage from witnesses and security cameras – as well as number plate searches and interviews – to piece together events.
It uncovered new details about the alleged attackers, some of whom have links to politically-influential rural committees that support Beijing.
It also said that police failed to respond to the build-up of stick-wielding men ferried into the district by specific vehicles that evening hours before the attack.
Hong Kong maintains a publicly accessible licence plate database long used by journalists, including pro-Beijing news outlets.
But authorities introduced a rule change that meant journalists were no longer allowed to make searches.
During her searches, Choy ticked a reason box that said “traffic and transportation-related matters”.
But Judge Chui ruled media reporting was not covered.
Ms. Choy’s lawyers argued her searches served the public interest and helped Hong Kongers “get closer to the truth”.
“Today is a dark day for Hong Kong journalists,” Chris Yeung, head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, said on Thursday.
Beijing has made no secret of its desire to see Hong Kong’s critical media tamed and RTHK has increasingly found itself a government target.
Modelled on Britain’s BBC, it is publicly funded and was editorially independent of Hong Kong’s government.
But authorities have ordered an overhaul of the broadcaster, including the recent appointment of a career civil servant as its new head.
He has vowed to vet all programming and has pulled multiple shows, sometimes just days or hours before they were due to air.
RTHK suspended Choy after her November arrest and did not make any statement in support of her work. (Source: CNA)