Hong Kong police have demanded that the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily hand over the information of journalists who searched for public vehicle licence plate records as part of their reporting.

The demand came after the arrest of RTHK producer Choy Yuk-ling last November, who was accused of breaching the Road Traffic Ordinance by making false statements during website searches for information on vehicle licence plates.

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Apple Daily’s office in Tseung Kwan O. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP

The information Choy obtained was used in an episode of RTHK’s investigative TV programme Hong Kong Connection. The episode, titled “7.21 Who Owns the Truth,” investigated the Yuen Long mob attacks in 2019 and the alleged police mishandling of the incident.

According to Apple Daily, their journalists filed an application to obtain public information from the vehicle registry in November. The journalists specified that the search was for news purposes in their application after the Transport Department deleted the option from the application from in 2019.

The application was accepted at that time by the Transport Department.

In their letter, the police said they hoped the newspaper “can provide the name and contact information of the person who was responsible for writing the report and gathering information.”

Apple Daily said that their editor-in-chief Law Wai-kwong had rejected the police demand, saying that “the police request lacked any justification and appeared to be an attempt to intimidate the media.”

‘Whistleblowing mechanism’

Meanwhile ,the department added a service on Saturday whereby vehicle owners can be notified by email when their records are accessed in the system.

Email notification service for the issue of the Certificate of Particulars of Vehicle
Newly added service from the government notifying vehicle owners when their licence plate are searched by the public. Photo: gov.hk screenshot.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) criticised the department’s move as setting up a “whistleblowing” mechanism, making it more difficult for journalists to conduct investigative reports and weakening the public’s right to know.

“The measure is no different from setting up a ‘whistleblowing’ mechanism – whenever reporters investigate relevant vehicles, vehicle owners would know beforehand and will think of a way to circumvent monitoring,” said the HKJA in a statement on Facebook.

The press association also urged the government to include “media reports” in the application forms and exempt vehicle owners from being notified of media-related searches.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.