Hong Kong documentary producer Bao Choy has been found guilty and fined HK$6,000 for making false statements to obtain vehicle ownership records while researching an RTHK programme on the Yuen Long mob attacks of 2019, one of the most controversial incidents in the pro-democracy protests that year.
Choy shed tears and embraced her lawyer after the sentence was announced. Crowds chanted “Reporting is not a crime!” as she left the courtroom amongst applause from the court audience.
Choy faced two counts of breaching the Road Traffic Ordinance during website searches for information on vehicle licence plates for an episode of Hong Kong Connection.
The freelance producer appeared on Thursday at West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts before Principal Magistrate Ivy Chui.
The magistrate rejected arguments from the defence that, because the vehicle in question was used to transport suspected weapons and attackers, checking the identity of those involved was allowed as it was a “transport-related matter.”
Chui said the public could obtain vehicle ownership records by declaring they would be used for one of three stated purposes: legal matters, vehicle purchase, or other transport or traffic-related matters. She said Choy did not have a direct legal case or other transport or traffic-related matters concerning the vehicle in question.
The magistrate ruled that Choy had knowingly made false statements since the Hong Kong Connection episode clearly showed she knew the records would be used for reporting purposes and not for other purposes.
She was ordered to pay HK$6,000 in fines, HK$3,000 for each offence. After the verdict, Choy crossed her hands and bowed her head as her representative submitted two mitigation letters.
Choy could have faced up to HK$5,000 in fines or six months of imprisonment for each offence.
A verdict against all reporters
Hundreds of reporters greeted Choy as she left the court.
“The verdict is upsetting,” Choy said outside the courthouse, blinking back tears as a crowd applauded. “I think the verdict was not only against me, but against all reporters in Hong Kong.”
“Even though I was found guilty, I don’t see journalism as a crime. I hope the industry will find [a] way to pursue our highest values of journalism in the long run,” she said.
“Bao, we support you, we support reporters and press freedom,” said Chris Yeung, president of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, pressing a hand on Choy’s shoulder.
He described it as “a dark day for the news industry, a shameful day in Hong Kong’s history.”
“History will and must remember this day. Reporters searching public records to parse out details for those responsible of the 721 incident enshrines the press’s function as the Fourth Estate,” Yeung said.
“That the government sent a reporter to the defendant’s dock and the court ruled a reporter guilty is an affront to the Fourth Estate. It spelt the death knell of press freedom.”
The documentary entitled 7.21 Who Owns the Truth, was aired on July 13, 2020 and received 1.5 million views on YouTube. Using CCTV footage from nearby business, it identified individuals suspected to have taken part in the attacks by white-shirted attackers on protesters and commuters.
On July 21 that year more than 100 rod-wielding men with suspected triad connections 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.”
The case fuelled fears that press freedom is under assault, especially since the passage of a sweeping national security law last June. The government-owned but independent broadcaster RTHK has come in for intense criticism from pro-Beijing elements and others in recent months.
Representatives from the RTHK Programme Staff Union rallied outside the court ahead of the hearing to support Choy. They held signs that read: “Journalism is not a crime,” “Without fear or favour,” and “Who wants the public kept in the dark?”
Hong Kong Connection 7.21 Who Owns the Truth won the Kam Yiu-yu Press Freedom Award on Wednesday, but RTHK has announced that it would not accept the award.
Cheng Sze-sze, one of the producers of the episode, said that she would still collect the prize.
“This award is also for those who provided CCTV footage. If I don’t accept the award, I am doing people who took a risk to give me that footage a wrong,” said Cheng. “This prize is also for journalists who are being arrested and prosecuted for reporting. If I don’t collect it, I would be doing Bao Choy wrong.”