Hong Kong, China – Hong Kong’s highest court will hear an appeal from prominent investigative journalist Bao Choy on journalists’ access to public information on Wednesday, World Press Freedom Day.
Choy, 38, is seeking to overturn a previous conviction for using vehicle registration data from the area’s transportation department in a documentary she made about the so-called Yuen Long attack, caused by a group of more than 100 men during the 2019 attack pro-democracy protests.
Prosecutors said Choy’s stated use of “traffic and transportation related matters” on the forms did not match the actual use of the information.
In April 2021, Choy was found guilty of two charges of making false statements to obtain information and was fined 6,000 Hong Kong dollars ($764) by the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts. Wednesday’s appeal to Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal is her last chance to overturn the conviction.
Choy declined to comment on the pending appeal, saying she did not want to risk influencing ongoing legal proceedings.
Speaking in January, after being given the go-ahead to proceed, Choy said she went ahead with the appeal because it had far-reaching implications for Hong Kong’s media industry.
“Whether I win or lose, the audience may have already formed their own judgment,” said Choy.
The case hinges on what constitutes “traffic and transportation-related matters” — one of three reasons available to those who search public records online — and whether it includes reporting. The other options are “transport related lawsuits” or “buy and sell vehicle”.
Choy’s lawyers have previously argued that Choy chose the “related matters” because they involved the use of a vehicle on the road, and have also discussed the risk to media freedom from an overly narrow interpretation of the term “related matters”. Affairs”. ”.
Prior to Choy’s arrest, it was common practice for the Hong Kong media to have access to public records, such as vehicle, land and business records, for use in their reporting and no journalists had been prosecuted.
The Court of Final Appeal ruling could set boundaries for local media and investigative journalism in Hong Kong. It is not clear when the decision will be made.
“Regardless of the result, it wouldn’t change my mind, I believe in the conscience of the public,” said Choy.
Journalists under pressure
The media environment in Hong Kong has changed dramatically since Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020.
Two independent news outlets critical of the government – Apple Daily and Stand News – have had their assets frozen and executives arrested on national security and sedition charges.
In 2022, the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders ranked press freedom in Hong Kong as 148th in the world, compared to 80th two years earlier.
In March 2023, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), the city’s largest media workers’ union, said they had received multiple reports from journalists of strangers being followed into their workplaces and outside court hearings.
HKJA chairman Ronson Chan, who himself was followed in 2021 by pro-Beijing media, said the industry faced many difficulties, including legal risks and pressure from authorities.
While freedom of the press is guaranteed in the basic law, also known as Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, Chan said there are few legal provisions describing what that means in practice.
“We have high expectations of the Court of Final Appeal. Let these judges who have a good understanding of the basic law decide how to understand this incident,” Chan said.
Choy’s arrest in November 2020 shocked many Hong Kong journalists who had often used public records in their work.
Choy had used the information to create an award-winning documentary about the mob attack, which took place on July 21, 2019, when train users, including some who had attended a pro-democracy protest earlier in the day, were attacked by white thugs in shirts at the station in Yuen Long, a suburb of western Hong Kong.
The attack came amid heightened tensions over mass opposition to a bill introduced by then-Chief Executive Carrie Lam that would have allowed people suspected of wrongdoing to be extradited to mainland China.
The violent attack was streamed live on social media, but it took police 39 minutes to arrive on the scene.
Choy, who joined the public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) in 2007 and later became a freelance producer for the documentary series “Hong Kong Connection”, tried to find out how the attack happened.
She tried to identify the owners of the cars that the perpetrators of the attack brought to the station, as the number plates were captured on security cameras.
Following Choy’s arrest, an employee of the pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao was arrested in 2021 on the same charge of making false statements to obtain vehicle registration information.
But the charges were later dropped and the Ta Kung Pao employee was released after signing a binding agreement of Hong Kong dollars ($254) guaranteeing that he would not commit the same act again.
Seven men were eventually tried for the Yuen Long attack and in July 2021 they were sentenced to seven years in prison. The judge said they had taken the law into their own hands and incited “extreme terror” among the residents.
Professor Francis Lee Lap-fung, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication, said Choy’s case demonstrates how the government has tightened media access to public information in recent years.
“This makes journalistic reporting more difficult and some Hong Kong media outlets and journalists had all but given up on using the various government registers and databases,” Lee said.
“It directly undermines the ability of the news media to conduct independent investigations into matters of public interest.”
Choy lost her job at RTHK after the lawsuit, but she maintains her determination to tell the stories of Hong Kong.
After completing a Neiman fellowship at Harvard University, this year she co-founded an online media outlet called The Collective, which focuses on producing in-depth coverage of Hong Kong affairs.
Lee of the Chinese University of Hong Kong noted that despite the changed circumstances and limited resources, a number of small-scale online outlets had sprung up in the city in recent years to continue producing professional and critical journalism.
“They may not have the clout of the previous online outlets… but their presence does illustrate the resilience of professional journalism in Hong Kong,” Lee said, adding that the city no longer had influential news outlets owned by people outside the country. establishment.
The outcome of the pending cases regarding the now-defunct Apple Daily and Stand News will provide further indication of what the Hong Kong government deems acceptable, he added.