Beijing has hit out at “unwarranted remarks” by Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club over shrinking press freedoms in the city, accusing it of being an external force interfering with China’s internal affairs and undermining the city’s rule of law.

The club “strongly condemned” the conviction of journalist Bao Choy last Thursday. Choy had accessed public records while producing a documentary into the police response to an attack on protesters and civilians in Yuen Long during the 2019 protests.

Bao Choy. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“The government’s actions against Choy set a dangerous precedent,” the Club’s statement on Thursday read. “They open the door to further legal action against journalists for engaging in routine reporting. They will also deter journalists from accessing legally available public records in Hong Kong.”

“It is clear that Choy was singled out and punished for a search that is routinely conducted by journalists in Hong Kong,” the statement added.

Choy was convicted of two charges under the Road Traffic Ordinance for accessing public car registration records in her RTHK film about a mob attack in a train station against civilians and pro-democracy protesters in July 2019. The incident marked a watershed moment in the movement and sowed distrust in the force, who were seen leaving the scene.

The court ruled that Choy had “knowingly submitted false statements” in securing access to the records. The freelance producer had faced up to six months imprisonment but was ultimately fined a total of HK$6,000.

‘Know your place’

In response, a spokesperson from Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong expressed “strong disapproval and “firm opposition to” the press club’s comments. “Such comments openly vilified the SAR Government and trampled upon the rule of law on the pretext of press freedom, and constituted a blatant interference in Hong Kong affairs, which are China’s internal affairs,” a statement read on Friday.

The spokesperson also called on the press club to “know their place,” stating that “Hong Kong is part of China.”

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“We urge the FCC and relevant external forces to face the facts, know their place, truly respect Hong Kong’s rule of law and judicial independence, and avoid saying one thing but doing another, still less meddle with Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs at large on the pretext of press freedom,” the spokesperson said.

The rising tensions over press freedom in Hong Kong comes as China becomes increasingly intolerant of foreign press within its borders as international concern grows over reports of mass human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in its Xinjiang region.

Beijing has expelled at least 18 foreign journalists in the past year while reporters on the ground cite increasing pressure and surveillance. Earlier this month, Beijing attacked the Foreign’s Correspondents’ Club of China, calling it an “illegal organisation.”

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club Hong Kong came under pressure in 2018 after it invited a pro-Hong Kong independence activist Andy Chan to speak at an event, HKFP revealed at the time. The club’s current lease on Lower Albert Road expires on January 1, 2023.

‘Unprecedented challenge’

Separately, the police force has said that “fake news” was an “unprecedented challenge” to Hong Kong and that it welcomed any new legislation that would assist in safeguarding the rule of law.

Its comments were made in response to an open letter from the press club urging the force to clarify statements from the police commissioner about the need to take action against “fake news.”

A police officer recording people chanting slogans outside the court. File Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“We share the common understanding that disinformation and conspiracy theories can pose challenges and dangers to the society. Since 2019… fake news and biased media coverage have also been playing a pivotal role in putting public interest in jeopardy,” the police’s response on Friday read.

“The Hong Kong Police Force always respect freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of publication. As long as the operational efficiency of the Force is not compromised, Police officers will facilitate professional reporting work,” the letter also read.

Student journalists and reporters from local media outlets were arrested last November for “obstruction” during the 2019 protests. The force also banned access to several media outlets during their raid of pro-democracy Apple Daily offices last August, with police commissioner Chris Tang saying only “trusted media” should be allowed within cordoned-off premises.

Photo: Studio Incendo.

Choy’s conviction and the authorities’ pledge to take action against “fake news” are the latest developments that have sparked concerns from international rights groups over a steady erosion of press freedoms in Hong Kong under a Beijing-imposed national security law in response to the 2019 protests.

French free expression NGO Reporters Without Borders has warned the security law poses a “grave threat” to press freedom while Amnesty International’s Hong Kong office has cited “unprecedented pressure” on the city’s journalists.

Rhoda Kwan

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.