Documentary producer Choy Yuk-Ling posted bail on Tuesday night, after being charged with two counts of making false statements to obtain vehicle records for a TV documentary which uncovered new details about the mob attack in Yuen Long last July 21.

Her arrest has been seen as a police crackdown on public record searches, and has sent shock waves in a city where freedom of the press used to be guaranteed.

Choy Yuk-Ling. Photo: RTHK Screenshot.

“It is a shame that the police arrested a journalist in the context of a feature documentary about the July 21 attack,” Choy said in a statement to the press, after posting bail for HK$1,000 at about 10pm. She was arrested from her home at about 1pm that day, after the police searched her apartment.

“I’m afraid this will raise questions among the public over whether the police are trying to use this to suppress the freedom of the press, and whether this will create a chilling effect in the city’s press,” she said. “Whatever speculation there is, will cause concern in the news industry. I don’t think there is any benefit to the Hong Kong public.”

“I urge Hong Kong journalists to stand fast on our values, and continue to do their work without fear nor favour. For all these years working as a journalist, I’ve always abided by journalistic principles,” Choy said. The case will be mentioned in court next Tuesday.

Under the Road Traffic Ordinance, making false statements to obtain vehicle records is punishable with a HK$5,000 fine and six months imprisonment.

A scene from the RTHK documentary. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

On July 21, 2019, over 100 rod-wielding men stormed Yuen Long MTR station leaving 45 people injured – including journalists, protesters, commuters and pro-democracy lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting. Police were criticised for responding slowly to the incident, with some officers seen leaving the scene or interacting with the white-clad men. The official account of the incident evolved over a year, with the authorities eventually claiming it was a “gang fight.”

In an investigative documentary aired last July, producers of Hong Kong Connection ran public record searches on licence plate numbers caught on surveillance footage, and tracked down vehicles that transported suspected assailants to the site of the attack.

The show revealed that two of the vehicles’ owners were rural village leaders, as reporters confronted them at their homes.

Hong Kong reporters have for years used car plate records in their reporting in media organisations of different political camps, most commonly by crime, traffic, and entertainment beat reporters. Choy is the first to be arrested for the practice.

To access a “Certificate of Particulars of Motor Vehicle,” a fee must be paid and the purchaser must declare one of three purposes for obtaining the record: transport related proceedings; the sale and purchase of a vehicle; or traffic and transport related matters. The government has – since January – removed the fourth option to select “other reasons,” NowTV reported.

Website to access vehicle public records. Photo: governmnt website screenshot.

According to a government statement made to the Legislative Council in 2011, the Transport Department issued around 50,400 car plate records that year, of which 56 per cent were requested for the stated purpose of judicial proceedings or purchase of vehicles.

The rest of the records requests did not have a stated purpose, but of these about 11,200 requests were from companies: about 70 per cent from real estate agencies and 25 per cent from media organisations.

In response to Choy’s arrest, Secretary for Security John Lee said on Wednesday that the police did not target a particular profession during the arrest. “It is a case which is investigated as a result of a complaint. If the police received a complaint, they have to act accordingly, and do investigation according to what the complaint is all about,” he said. “So it is the case circumstances which decide which is the subject of the investigation. This is no different from any other investigation that the police have been doing, as a result of a complaint.”

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.