In a case that’s been seen as a further blow to press freedoms in the city, Bao Choy was found guilty Thursday at Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court of violating the city’s Road Traffic Ordinance and given a 6,000 Hong Kong dollar penalty ($770). The charge carried a possible six-month prison sentence.
Prosecutors said the freelance journalist violated the ordinance because she searched the vehicle registration database while producing the documentary “Hong Kong Connection: 7.21 Who Owns the Truth?” for public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK).
Prosecutors said the ordinance should only be used for “transport-related matters” — and not in the course of reporting.
Magistrate Ivy Chui agreed, saying Choy’s use of the database was not in line with what vehicle owners expected when they submitted their data to the Transport Department. She said the government should not give out personal details of vehicle owners to users who do not use the information within the scope of what is permitted.
“Reporting and newsgathering is not connected to traffic and transport related matters,” Chui said. “It is obvious that the applicant has used the information from the Transport Department for reporting purposes.”
The case against Choy has intensified concerns over civil liberties in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, as authorities continue to crackdown on prominent figures linked to the democracy movement.
Dozens of suspected gang members violently attacked democracy supporters and commuters inside Yuen Long local train station, in northern Hong Kong, in July 2019. Police took 39 minutes to respond to the attack, prompting criticism from pro-democracy protesters and worsening trust between the demonstrators and authorities.
During Choy’s program, which aired on RTHK in July 2020, a narrator said producers had identified a few vehicles that were suspected of having supplied weapons to the attackers. Using a vehicle registration database, producers linked the vehicles to local village representatives living in the area, before approaching them for comment.
Choy’s documentary has won two awards in Hong Kong, most recently picking up one on Wednesday.
During last month’s trial Choy’s lawyer, Derek Chan, argued Choy’s use of the database was “obviously related to traffic matters,” because the vehicles were suspected of having transported weapons for the perpetrators of the July 21 attack.
He added that public databases should remain open due to the public interest.
The case is seen as another example of the growing restrictions on journalists. After the verdict was handed down, Choy’s supporters held signs and chanted slogans including “Journalism is not a crime” and “Bao Choy, fight on.”
International watchdog Reporters without Borders now ranks Hong Kong 80 out of 180 countries and territories for press freedom. In 2002, the city ranked 18th.
An award-winning Hong Kong journalist has been convicted of providing false statements to access a database as part of an investigation into alleged police mishandling of a violent mob attack on pro-democracy protesters in 2019.