Hong Kong journalist Bao Choy has lost an appeal against her conviction over assessing public data for a documentary about a mob attack in July 2019.

Bao Choy
Journalist Bao Choy speaks with reporters outside High Court on Nov. 7, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Speaking to reporters outside the High Court on Monday, Choy said she was disappointed by the outcome of the appeal, in which the judge upheld the guilty verdict she was handed last year.

“I believe this defeat will directly affect how [reporters] check for information, and present obstacles to the media industry’s [work of] monitoring authoritative figures in society,” she said.

Choy, a freelance producer, was arrested in November 2020 and charged with two counts of making false statements to obtain vehicle records for a documentary for public broadcaster RTHK. The 22-minute documentary uncovered details about the mob attack in Yuen Long on July 21, 2019, widely seen as a turning point in the protests that summer with police accused of siding with the attackers and ignoring calls for help.

Bao Choy
Journalist Bao Choy speaks with reporters outside High Court on Nov. 7, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

The journalist was found guilty last year and fined HK$6,000, a verdict that prompted fears about declining press freedom in the city.

Choy appealed against her conviction in August, arguing that she genuinely believed that her application to access the records fell within the scope of “other traffic and transport related matters,” the option she selected when making the application.

‘Good intentions’

In a 34-page written judgement, High Court judge Alex Lee said he “completely agreed” with the magistrate’s earlier ruling that information obtained through the database of vehicle details cannot be “arbitrarily abused.”

He added that per the magistrate, it was “without doubt” that Choy’s aim of accessing the information was not related to the vehicle itself, where it was driven on the night of the attack and the manner in which the driver drove.

“The appellant’s purpose of searching for the information was to investigate and report on the identity of those suspected of assisting in or taking part in the July 21, 2019 attacks,” he wrote.

yuen long attack 721
Rod-wielding men entered Yuen Long MTR station on July 21, 2019. Photo: RTHK.

Under the mechanism for obtaining vehicle ownership records, applicants must declare they would be used for one of three stated purposes: legal matters, vehicle purchase, or other transport or traffic-related matters – the latter of which Choy selected in her research for the documentary.

Lee also said that he “did not deny” that Choy had sought to access the information “out of good intentions.”

“But… good intentions are not a reason for defence,” he said.

In accessing the data, the applicant has to sign off on a declaration that the information provided was accurate and “for matters relating to traffic and transport matters,” Lee said.

“Therefore, the defendant must have known to provide true and correct information.”

Fears for press freedom

When speaking to reporters on Monday, Choy cited Lee’s part of the judgement about her “good intentions.”

“The court affirmed that… ‘[journalists] seek information for matters relating to public interest,” she said. “But under the current systems, to what extent are we allowed to do that?”

Bao Choy
Journalist Bao Choy speaks with reporters outside High Court on Nov. 7, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Choy said she was speaking with her legal team about considering a second appeal to the Court of Final Appeal, Hong Kong’s highest court.

“Our decision on whether to appeal has to be made within 28 days,” she said, referring to the time in which appellants must file an appeal application from the date of their verdict. “I will address the public in due course.”

The RTHK documentary on the Yuen Long attacks was released to mark the first anniversary of the incident, which was shortly after the passing of national security law.

Activists and NGOs have expressed concern about declining press freedom since the legislation’s enactment, under which pro-democracy media outlets Apple Daily and Stand News have shuttered.

Editors of the latter are currently standing in a 20-day sedition trial, in which articles including profiles of political activists have been accepted as evidence for the prosecution.

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Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.