Hong Kong journalist Bao Choy has appealed to the city’s top court against her conviction linked to checking vehicle registration records for a documentary about the Yuen Long attacks in 2019.

Bao Choy
Journalist Bao Choy outside the Court of Final Appeal on May 3, 2023. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

The former RTHK freelance producer appeared before a panel of five judges at the Court of Final Appeal on Wednesday morning.

Senior Counsel Derek Chan – who represented Choy – said there were two “points of law” to discuss related to the Road Traffic Ordinance, the legislation that she was found guilty of breaching. The points were whether the Commissioner of Transport had the power to reject applications for vehicle registration details on grounds that the application was unrelated to “traffic and transport matters,” and what “traffic and transport matters” entailed.

After the government prosecutor finished making his arguments, Chan said the prosecution had raised points including some related to personal data and privacy, but did not mention press freedom.

The barrister said press freedom was guaranteed in the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, as well as the Bill of Rights, and “needs to be taken into account” in the case.

Court of Final Appeal
Court of Final Appeal. Photo: GovHK.

Choy was found guilty in 2021 of making false statements to obtain vehicle records for a documentary she was producing for public broadcaster RTHK. The Hong Kong Connection episode was about the attack at Yuen Long MTR station on July 21, 2019, which took place amid widespread protests that year. She was fined HK$6,000.

The incident saw dozens of white-shirted men, reportedly with triad affiliations, indiscriminately assault commuters, journalists, and protesters returning from a demonstration that night.

Choy’s appearance at the Court of Final Appeal coincided with World Press Freedom Day.

‘Not a traffic or transport related matter’

The journalist’s case centres around Choy’s use of a public database to review records of vehicles suspected of transporting assailants and weapons to the site of the attack in Yuen Long. In her application to access the records, Choy selected “other traffic and transport related matters” in a dropdown menu that asked her intention for obtaining the information.

yuen long july 27 china extradition
Bloodstains can be seen on the ground next to an exit of the Yuen Long MTR station. File Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Chan argued that Choy’s use of the database fell within the scope of “other traffic and transport related matters” as she was looking into the vehicle allegedly used to carry weapons.

Government prosecutor Derek Lau, however, said investigations were “not a traffic or transport related matter.”

Chief Justice Andrew Cheung asked: “Doesn’t [it] depend on the content of the investigation?”

“[It] does not depend on subject matter,” Lau replied. “Investigation is not a traffic or transport matter.”

He said a reporter investigating a traffic accident would not fall within the scope, but that a police investigation – “for example if a person was injured or suffered damage as a result of a traffic accident” – would be a “different matter.”

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

Judge Roberto Ribeiro then asked: “Why should it be confined only to someone injured in a traffic accident, why not extend [it] to someone injured because of a crime committed by someone in a vehicle?”

Lau added that activities needed to have “an inherent nature that relates to traffic or transport.”

The chief justice followed up by asking whether a person who was conducting research for running a second-hand car business would “qualify,” to which the prosecutor said yes.

‘A clear mind’

Addressing reporters outside the Court of Final Appeal, Choy said she was keeping a “clear mind” and did not want to predict the results of her legal challenge.

“The worst situation has already happened. I understand many media outlets have already stopped letting reporters check license plates because my case implies that this… is illegal,” Choy said.

She said it was now a matter for the top court to consider how to strike a balance between the public’s right to know, press freedom, and privacy.

This is Choy’s final attempt to appeal against her conviction. She lost her appeal at a lower court last November.

Press freedom in Hong Kong has come under the spotlight since Beijing passed a national security law in June 2020 in response to large-scale protests and unrest that began in the summer of 2019.

press freedom reporters journalists
government press conference in Hong Kong. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

In 2021, two major news outlets Apple Daily and Stand News – both known for their pro-democracy stance – closed down after their newsrooms were raided and staff arrested under national security and sedition charges.

The government, however, has said that press freedom is “respected and protected.”

Free expression NGO Reporters Without Borders ranked Hong Kong 140th among 180 countries and territories in an annual press freedom index released on Wednesday.

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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.