The conviction of Hong Kong documentary maker Bao Choy has been labelled “appalling” by international press and human rights organisations while a member of the city’s ruling Executive Council says the press has no privilege and should respect the court’s decision.

Meanwhile, the police confirmed a local media report on Friday that a journalist from the state media outlet, Ta Kung Pao, had been arrested in February on an identical charge, that of making false statements to obtain public vehicle records.

West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts
(From left to right) Chairperson of Hong Kong Journalists Association Chris Yeung, documentary producer Bao Choy, and head of RTHK Programme Staff Union Gladys Chiu outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building after Choy was convicted of knowingly making false statements when obtaining public records. File Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

International rights body Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF) issued a statement on Thursday condemning the verdict against Choy, a freelance television producer who was found guilty on the same day of making false statements to obtain public vehicle records for a documentary about police failures. She was fined HK$6,000 for two offences.

The case has 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.

Bao Choy press freedom
Journalist Bao Choy meets the press after she was found guilty of two counts of making false statements on April 22, 2021. File Photo: Studio Incendo.

Bao Choy was only doing her job and collecting information in the public’s interest and should never have been prosecuted, let alone convicted and fined”, said Cédric Alviani, RSF East Asia bureau head. The fact that a journalistic investigation could become a punishable offence highlights the extent of the recent decline in press freedom in Hong Kong.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists called the conviction “unjust”, saying that it “marks the latest assault on press freedom in Hong Kong: the criminalization of a common tool of investigative journalism,” said the organisation’s Asia program coordinator, Steven Butler, in a statement.

“Hong Kong’s government should welcome journalists who dig for and expose the truth, not prosecute them,” Butler said.

The Hong Kong office of Amnesty International tweeted that the charge against Choy was “unprecedented”.

West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts
Supporters of documentary producer Bao Choy hold up signs that read: “Fearless, relentless, selfless,” “Without fear or favour,” and “Stand up for Bao Choy, stand up for journalists” at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building after Choy was convicted of knowingly making false statements when obtaining public records. File Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“[It] appears to be an attempt to punish her for her role in a narrative-setting RTHK documentary that was critical of the Hong Kong Police Force,” the tweet reads.

The documentary entitled 7.21 Who Owns the Truth used CCTV footage from nearby business to identify individuals suspected to have taken part in the attacks by white-shirted individuals on protesters and commuters at the Yuen Long MTR station in July 2019.

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.”

Ronny Tong, a member of the city’s Executive in Council, a top advisory body for the city’s leader Carrie Lam, said during a television interview on RTHK that saying the case spelled the death of press freedom in Hong Kong would be an exaggeration. He dismissed suggestions to include newsgathering as a legitimate purpose to search for government records as unfeasible.

“Now that the judgement has been handed down, the press should respect it,” Tong said.

“The press has no privilege,” he said, reiterating the words of the chief executive.

Second reporter arrested

Separately, a second reporter was arrested over making false statements to obtain vehicle records on February 21, police said on Friday. The 47-year-old man worked for China-owned newspaper Ta Kung Pao, the Stand News reported, citing sources.

ta kung pao district council election front page
A copy of Ta Kung Pao. File photo: HKFP.

Critics have called for prosecution of state media reporters over similar charges as Choy’s to demonstrate that police enforced the law with impartiality, as reporters from pro-Beijing media also used vehicle record searches to identify individuals in their reporting.

“Police received a complaint saying that an individual made public information related to a vehicle owner in an article. He is suspected of violating personal privacy,” a police statement read.

The individual has been charged with violating the Road Traffic Ordinance over obtaining personal data of a vehicle owner in August 2020, and for using it for a purpose that was different from what was declared in order to obtain the record. He has appeared before the Eastern Magistrates’ Court in April and will re-appear in May.

“Police will consider evidence found for each case, and will investigate and follow up without favour,” the police statement read.

HKFP has reached out to Ta Kung Pao for comment.

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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.