Journalist’s conviction ‘may spell end to media use of public databases’

Published (HKT): 2021.04.23 06:00

A Hong Kong court’s conviction of a broadcast journalist for providing false statements about her use of a public government database has sparked a widespread outcry over fast-shrinking press freedom in the city.

Award-winning journalist Bao Choy, a freelance producer for public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong, was guilty of deceiving the Transport Department twice by using the car ownership details she obtained for news reporting rather than the officially declared transport-related purpose, Principal Magistrate Ivy Chui ruled in the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts.

“The judgment completely disregards what a big blow this is for press freedom,” and it would be detrimental to the public, Stand News journalist Chan Shun-hei said.

In a joint statement, eight Hong Kong journalists groups described the erosion of press freedom as a “dark day for the Hong Kong media”, while the Foreign Correspondents’ Club condemned the prosecution of Choy as a “dangerous precedent” which opened the door to further legal action against journalists for engaging in routine reporting, and would deter journalists from accessing legally available public records in Hong Kong.

The European Union Office to Hong Kong and Macao wrote on social media: “The conviction today of journalist [Bao Choy] is a reminder that press freedom cannot be taken for granted and that the law should not be deployed in a way that stifles legitimate journalism.”

Choy was investigating a watershed moment in the city’s 2019 social unrest, where white-clad mobsters with rods attacked commuters inside a train station in Yuen Long during pro-democracy protests in August that year.

At least 45 people were injured. Media workers captured images of police officers standing next to some of the mobsters and doing nothing. This triggered a public outcry as officers were perceived to be colluding with the assailants, an allegation that the police had denied multiple times.

Choy later made an investigative documentary regarding the violent mob attack that was critical of the Hong Kong government.

Her 30-minute show, “7.21: Who Owns the Truth,” aired on July 31, 2020, and sought to identify the white-clothed mobsters through reviewing security camera footage and videos posted online.

The court said in its ruling that Choy should have tried to obtain the information directly from the department.

Chan, the Stand News journalist, said that such a statement was far from reality. He said he had written to the department for information on car plates before, only to receive a response saying that the only way to do so was through the online portal. In its reply, the department also attached the online application, a form that was exactly the same as the one used by Choy, Chan said.

He expressed concern that the judgment had cast a pall over the future of journalistic work in the city and increased the risk of investigative journalism. “The spirit of journalism is to dig for the truth. The unjust, unfair incidents must be investigated, but it will be much harder to do so in the future.”

Sixteen members of the RTHK’s advisory board issued a joint petition thanking Choy for revealing the truth.

They said in the petition that the judgment failed to take into consideration public interest and press freedom. The government had been increasingly restricting journalists from conducting investigations, and robbing the public of the right to know the truth.

The RTHK advisers urged the broadcaster not to stop screening the relevant programs, and to pay for Choy’s legal fees. The government should protect the fourth estate, which had the right to frame political issues, and to protect press freedom and the public’s right to the truth, according to the petition.

Journalists often rely on government databases available to the public for reporting, but the latest judgment could make this resource no longer viable.

Since Choy was charged, government departments have further limited the use of these databases. The Immigration Department announced in October last year that anyone who was searching Hong Kong’s birth and marriage records must obtain the agreement of the individual being checked.

Apple Daily last year applied for such checks under the purpose of newsgathering, but its application was rejected in July without a reason.

The move to tighten control over public databases goes against the global trend. Mainland China has two databases, Tianyancha and Qichacha, where the public can look up listed companies, including details of the board members. Limiting the use of such databases could mean many companies go unchecked.

Unions are concerned that blocking searches of car plate and company information would make it harder to advocate for workers’ and employees’ rights in labor disputes.

The term “false information” in the judgment has also become a concern for those doing due diligence for accounting purposes and for unions, who worry that whether something is considered “false information” will be up to the government to interpret.

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