Ronson Chan, the head of Hong Kong’s largest journalist group, has been found guilty of obstructing a police officer while reporting last September and was sentenced to five days in prison before being granted bail pending appeal.

Ronson Chan HKJA Stand News Channel C
Hong Kong Journalists Association chairperson Ronson Chan outside the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts on September 25, 2023. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

The veteran journalist and chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) appeared at West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court on Monday. He earlier pleaded not guilty to obstructing a police officer and an alternative charge of obstructing a public officer.

Handing down the verdict on Monday, judge Leung Ka-kie said she believed Chan had deliberately stopped the police officer from carrying out her duties considering his reaction when asked to hand over over his identity card.

The case relates to an incident last September, when Chan was reporting on a home owners’ committee meeting at MacPherson Stadium in Mong Kok and was stopped by a plainclothes police officer who said he was acting “suspiciously” and asked to see his identification card.

He was arrested after allegedly not complying with requests to present his identification despite multiple warnings.

After the verdict was handed down, Chan’s barrister submitted two letters of mitigation, one from former lawmaker and ex-HKJA chair Emily Lau, and another from Andrew Chan, the archbishop of the Hong Kong Anglican Church. Both had known Chan for over 20 and 30 years, respectively. In the letters, Chan was described as an active member of society and a kind and passionate person who made contributions to Hong Kong’s news industry.

Ronson Chan
Hong Kong Journalists Association Chairman Ronson Chan. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Chan’s lawyer, Charlotte Kong, appealed to the court to consider a non-custodial penalty. She also cited a number of past court cases involving the same offence, which she said were more serious in nature but were met with fines and community service order.

Kwok summarised a three-page statement prepared by Chan, which said that Chan had never had any ill feelings towards police officers and had always been interested in the work of the city’s law enforcement agency. He added that he found it meaningful to report on the police as they have significant interaction with the public.

In the statement, Chan also said he had also collaborated with the police before, having been invited to describe the work of the media to the police force and to a football game.

5-day jail sentence

Handing down the five-day jail sentence, Leung said a fine or a community service order were not sufficient to reflect the severity of the offence. Short-term imprisonment was the “only suitable” punishment, she said.

Leung took a seven-day jail term as a starting point and considering Chan’s good character, background and contributions to the Hong Kong media industry, reduced it to five days. However, Leung said she had not seen Chan show remorse for his actions, adding that his persistent questioning of police when they asked for his identification was “reckless and unreasonable”

West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts
West Kowloon Law Courts Building. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Chan was granted bail pending appeal on conditions including a $30,000 bail amount, handing over all his travel documents and reporting to a police station twice a week.

Leaving the court after his bail application was approved, Chan said he did not have much to say as his comments could affect his appeal. But he said he was not too surprised that he was found guilty and handed a jail sentence.

“I had thought there was a high chance [that this would be the outcome],” he said in Cantonese.

He added that because his bail conditions required him not to leave Hong Kong, he would have to skip an overseas media conference where he was slated to speak.

Reliability of police testimony questioned

During the trial in May, the defence cast doubt on the testimony delivered by the police officer, surnamed Leung, who attempted to search the journalist before his arrest. The officer recalled her exchange with Chan, telling the court that Chan had “acted emotional” and “yelled loudly” when asked to show his identity card.

Defence counsel Charlotte Kong said the actual time Leung spent talking to Chan was only 15 seconds according to CCTV footage played in court. The exchange Leung described would have taken at least 24 seconds, Kong said.

“You are making up a story. The truth is it all happened in a split second, and you cannot recall what was being said during the interaction,” Kong said.

Ronson Chan HKJA Channel C
Ronson Chan on September 22, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP

Obstructing a police officer is punishable by up to two years in jail, while obstructing a public officer carries a maximum penalty of a HK$1,000 fine and six months in prison.

During his testimony, Chan said he was rushing because he was late to the homeowners’ meeting. He said he knew he could not refuse an officer’s order to show his identity card, but was worried his privacy would be breached.

When asked why he was concerned about showing his identification, Chan said he had once had his identity card displayed during a live stream.

During the protests and unrest in 2019, an officer who asked to see Chan’s identity card while the journalist was covering a rally in Tai Po held the card in front of his camera, which was live streaming to thousands of viewers.

Judge Leung on Monday said she did not accept that Chan was concerned about a privacy breach as the police officer was not holding any equipment that would have allowed that.

She acknowledged that there were inconsistencies in the testimonies of the four police officers who gave evidence in court. But she said this did not undermine their credibility, as the officers had arrived at the scene at different times and had different interactions with Chan.

Press freedom in the spotlight

Chan, a veteran journalist, is currently a reporter for online outlet Channel C. He formerly worked as independent outlet Stand News, which was forced to cease operations in December 2021 after its newsroom was raided by police officers from the National Security Department and seven people linked to it were arrested.

Stand News Chung Pui-kuen Patrick Lam 2023.6.28
Stand News editors Patrick Lam and Chung Pui-kuen outside District Court on June 28, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

A verdict in a sedition trial involving two ex-Stand News editors is expected in November, more than a year after the trial began.

Chan’s arrest occurred two weeks before he departed for the UK to pursue a six-month journalism fellowship programme at Oxford University. He was granted bail without travel restrictions, and his trial was postponed until after his return.

In June, after returning to the city, Chan was elected head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association for the third time. The group has faced pressure from the authorities as well as criticism from state-backed media since Beijing imposed a national security law in Hong Kong, which has seen dozens of civil society groups disband.

Press freedom in Hong Kong has also come under the spotlight since the security law was enacted. Press groups including the Foreign Correspondents’ Club expressed concern over Chan’s arrest at the time, prompting China’s foreign ministry to call its remarks “slander.”

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.