Hong Kong journalist on trial over database search for probe into 2019 mob attack

Bao Choy's (centre) prosecution has deepened concerns over press freedoms as Beijing moves to stamp out dissent in the wake of democracy protests.
Bao Choy's (centre) prosecution has deepened concerns over press freedoms as Beijing moves to stamp out dissent in the wake of democracy protests.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - An award-winning Hong Kong journalist went on trial on Wednesday (March 24) for accessing car ownership details on official databases during an investigation into the perpetrators of an attack on democracy supporters by government loyalists.

The prosecution of Bao Choy, a producer with public broadcaster RTHK, has deepened concerns over press freedoms as Beijing moves to stamp out dissent in the wake of huge democracy protests.

Some of Choy's colleagues gathered outside court on Wednesday holding banners that read "Journalism is not a crime" and "Without fear or favour".

Choy pleaded not guilty to two counts of "knowingly making a false statement" to access number plate ownership records on Hong Kong's vehicle database.

She faces up to six months in jail and a HK$5,000 (S$866) fine if convicted.

The database searches were made for an RTHK documentary last year called Who Owns The Truth? that looked into an attack on democracy protesters by a gang of men armed with clubs and sticks.

The police's failure to respond quickly enough to that assault in July 2019 was a turning point in the huge and often violent pro-democracy protests that year, further hammering public trust in the force.

RTHK used footage filmed by witnesses and security cameras - as well as public number plate searches and interviews - to piece together events.

It uncovered new details about the alleged attackers, some of whom have links to politically influential rural committees that support Beijing.

It also said police failed to respond to the build-up of stick-wielding men ferried into the district by specific vehicles that evening, hours before the attack.

Choy was arrested after the documentary aired in November.

Hong Kong maintains a publicly accessible licence plate database that has long been used by journalists, including pro-Beijing news outlets.

But the authorities announced that a rule change that had been quietly introduced no longer allowed journalists to make searches.

On Wednesday, prosecutors said Choy clicked "other traffic and transport related matters" on the online form to justify her searches.

"Visiting the addresses and seeking to do interviews about the car and its use on a certain day is not related to traffic and transport - neither is (it) news reporting," prosecutor Derek Lau said.

Defence lawyer Derek Chan countered that her search was "related to traffic and transport matters" because she was trying to uncover who supplied weapons for the attackers.

"The car was seen transporting some weapons to the scene and the application was trying to figure out who might be using the car," Mr Chan added.

All media is state-controlled in authoritarian China, while foreign reporters face heavy restrictions.

Semi-autonomous Hong Kong remains a major Asian media hub with a vibrant local press and many international outlets hosting regional headquarters there.

But the city has steadily slid down media freedom rankings since its return to China in 1997.

Since the democracy protests, Beijing has cracked down on opponents, imposing a sweeping national security law and unveiling plans to ensure only "staunch patriots" run Hong Kong.