After a Hong Kong journalist exposed police failures, a court found her guilty of a crime

By THEODORA YU AND SHIBANI MAHTANI | The Washington Post | Published: April 22, 2021

HONG KONG — An award-winning Hong Kong journalist was found guilty of a crime Thursday for using a public database to expose police failings, the first time a member of the news media has faced prosecution in the Chinese territory for an act of reporting.

The verdict against 37-year-old Choy Yuk-ling, also known as Bao Choy, highlights the deterioration of media freedoms in Hong Kong, supposedly protected under the law, as China remodels the city after imposing a draconian national security law.

"This prosecution is part of a continuing strategy by the government of using the legal system to crack down on dissent, which now includes anyone — including investigative journalists — who attempts to challenge the government's official narrative," said Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and writer.

Choy, a former staff producer and freelancer for public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), was arrested in November and accused of breaching the law for accessing a public database of car registrations. She was seeking to obtain vehicle license plate information — a standard procedure that Hong Kong journalists practiced when fact-checking or reporting investigative stories. She pleaded not guilty.

The license plate information was used in a documentary for RTHK, investigating the failure of police to prevent a pro-Beijing mob from attacking anti-government protesters and commuters at a subway station in July 2019. The incident was one of the most consequential of the 2019 protests in Hong Kong and undermined confidence in the police, who showed up only after the mob had left and after dozens were injured.

Police have since worked to rewrite the narrative of that night, presenting it as a clash between "evenly matched rivals."

The day before her verdict, Choy's documentary episode won the Kam Yiu-yu Press Freedom Award, among the highest journalistic honors in Hong Kong. The judges said the work raised "important leads that the people in power refused to respond to", adding that it was a "detailed and professional use of public records." The episode was titled "7.21: Who Owns the Truth."

In delivering her verdict, the judge said the public does not have "absolute rights" to access documents under Hong Kong law and that Choy should have been truthful while trying to access the database. Choy's reasons for accessing the database, the judge added, do not matter.

Choy faced up to six months in prison, but the judge, considering the reporter's awards and the merits of her work, agreed to a fine of $774. Choy, upon hearing the decision, took off her black mask and wiped away tears.

Ahead of the verdict, supporters including some from Choy's former employer, RTHK, chanted that journalists are "righteous" and that journalism is not a crime.

Press associations condemned Choy's initial arrest, and said rules have changed to deliberately ensnare reporters. Journalists accessing the car registration database were once able to input their information and profession under a category labeled "others" until the option was removed, effectively restricting reporters' access to the data.

RTHK, the only independent, publicly funded broadcaster on Chinese soil, has become a key part of Beijing's effort to tighten control in Hong Kong. Last month, the broadcaster replaced director Leung Ka-wing with a career civil servant who had no media experience. Under this new management, RTHK has shifted to focus on content that supports the national security law and promotes "national identity," moving more toward the model of state media on the Chinese mainland.

The broadcaster unsuccessfully tried to pull Choy's documentary from journalism awards, and refused to accept the award she won this week.

Reporters fear more curbs to independent journalism are looming. This year, Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed to introduce legislation combating "fake news" and hate speech, laws that have created problems for the news media elsewhere in the region, including Singapore.

Hong Kong's ranking in the world press freedom index remained at 80 out of 180 countries this year, though it has plummeted from 18th in 2002. Reporters Without Borders cited new threats posed by the national security law and "a full-blown intimidation campaign" toward RTHK by the government.

The Hong Kong government, in response, said it was "appalled" by the Reporters Without Borders report, which it said suggests "that people with a particular profession should be immune to legal sanctions."

"Criminals who break the law must face justice," the government added. "Arrest and prosecution actions were based on facts and evidence and strictly according to the laws in force."

Speaking to reporters after the hearing Thursday, Choy said the judgment would affect the entire media landscape. "My continuation of my work in journalism is the best answer to this verdict," she said.