Local journalism groups have slammed Hong Kong chief executive for “breaching” her election promise to safeguard press freedom following the arrest of an RTHK producer. They also urged the government to include “news-related purposes” as an option for reporters conducting public record searches.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) and several news outlet unions held a press conference on Thursday to criticise Tuesday’s arrest of Choy Yuk-ling, who co-produced a documentary on the Yuen Long attacks for public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK).

hkja rthk
Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

Choy was accused of making a false statement for the purpose of obtaining a certificate under the Road Traffic Ordinance. “7.21 Who Owns the Truth” – an episode of RTHK’s Hong Kong Connection – was co-produced by Choy and investigated the 2019 Yuen Long mob attack. By examining license plate numbers of vehicles that appeared on the scene, reporters visited the homes of several individuals alleged to have been present on the night.

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.”

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To apply for a certificate of a particular vehicle, one may can only choose an option between “transport related legal proceedings;” “sale and purchase of vehicle;” or “traffic and transport related matters” on the form. But on Thursday, journalism groups urged government departments to include a “news-related purposes” option on public registry application forms in order to protect press freedom and journalists’ right to disclose information involving major public interest.

HKJA Chair Chris Yeung told reporters that Choy’s arrest severely undermined the media’s monitoring role and eroded the public right to know. Other than the rule of law, Yeung said, the freedom of press and freedom of information are important in shaping Hong Kong into an international financial centre.

Choy Yuk-Ling
Choy Yuk-Ling. Photo: Studio Incendo.

He also cited the latest Hong Kong Press Freedom Index – an annual survey of journalists and members of the public. Yeung said that, apart from alleged police mistreatment of media workers, responses reflected that it was increasingly difficult for journalists to obtain information for reporting – contributing to a new low in the index last year.

The journalists association chair also criticised Chief Executive Carrie Lam for “breaching” her election promise, since all candidates for the race in 2017 – including the incumbent leader – signed a pledge to uphold press freedom. Lam then vowed to introduce an access to information law and archive law within her term, and lift the ban on online media for accessing government press events. Lam has only accomplished the latter.

hkja rthk
Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

“The government is gradually tightening its grip on press freedom through executive measures, bypassing the legislature,” he said.

He also expressed concern over whether Choy’s arrest will set a precedent for retrospective prosecutions in connection with past investigative work: “It imposes huge pressure on media organisations financially in terms of resources and psychologically.”

In September, the police force changed its definition of media representatives to include only around 205 outlets registered under the Government News and Media Information System, in addition to “internationally reputable” organisations.

RTHK assistance to Choy

RTHK Programme Staff Union Chair Gladys Chiu admitted there are administrative challenges in assisting with Choy’s case since she was a freelancer, rather than a full-time RTHK staffer.

She said the union had requested the management’s direct intervention to provide assistance, as Choy was commissioned to produce the controversial episode and the pressure should not fall on her shoulders. Their attitude has so far been positive, she said.

Press freedom journalist government
Reporters raise questions during a government press conference on September 15, 2020. Photo: GovHK.

Chiu said Choy had appointed a lawyer, but she refused to disclose further details about the case to respect the producer’s will and privacy.

The union chair added that she had not heard of any plans to remove the episode or suspend the programme. Ongoing investigative work will not be affected by the incident, she said, and they will not stop using tools to exercise their press freedom.

This week, the union launched a campaign on Facebook urging the public to post messages in support of Choy, who has been released on bail.

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Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.