Hong Kong’s largest press group said it was “disappointed and worried” by the court’s decision to reject an appeal filed by a journalist convicted over accessing public data for a documentary about a mob attack in July 2019.

High Court Judge Alex Lee ruled against former RTHK producer Bao Choy’s appeal on Monday. Choy was convicted last year of two counts of making false statements to obtain vehicle records for a documentary she made for the public broadcaster, and fined HK$6,000.

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

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), in a statement published on Monday night, said that the judgement showed it was necessary to review whether restrictions on accessing public records were proportional to strike a balance between privacy, the public’s right to know, and press freedom.

“HKJA is disappointed and worried about the ruling, [we] think that the judgement will constitute a great obstacle to journalists conducting investigative reports in the future, and weaken the media’s purpose to seek the truth,” the statement read.

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.

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.

Lee said that while Choy had sought the information “out of good intention,” it was not a reason for defence. The judge also said that he “completely agreed” with magistrate Ivy Chui’s earlier ruling that the information obtained through the database could not be “arbitrarily abused.”

John Lee
Chief Executive John Lee meeting the press on November 8, 2022. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The judge also said that there was no doubt that Choy’s intention of accessing the data was not related to the car, but to “investigate and report on the identity of those suspected of assisting in or taking part in the July 21, 2019, attacks.”

However, the judge also said that the government should try its best to make accessing information more convenient for the public under “reasonable and feasible” areas, and increase the transparency of governance.

“I agree the importance of information flow and press freedom to an open and democratic society,” Lee wrote.

Press freedom ‘in the pocket’

Chief Executive John Lee said on Tuesday in response to Lee’s ruling that press freedom was “in the pocket of the people of Hong Kong,” and that it was protected in the Basic Law.

“What is important is, whatever profession you are in, you must go about your duties in accordance with the law. You cannot go beyond the law, and nobody is above the law. And provided it is within the confine of the law, press freedom is fully protected in Hong Kong,” Lee said.

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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.