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Hong Kong journalist stands trial over use of online license plate search

West Kowloon Magistrates' Court (Exploringlife/WikiCommons)
March 29, 2021

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

An investigative journalist arrested by Hong Kong police after she made a documentary exposing their handling of the July 21, 2019 mob attacks on train passengers in Yuen Long stood trial in the city on Wednesday.

Bao Choy, a producer contracted to make the documentary by government broadcaster RTHK, is being prosecuted for accessing car ownership details on official databases as she tried to track the movements of suspected attackers on the night for the film.

She appeared for the first day of her trial at West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court, where she was photographed surrounded by members of the RTHK staff union holding up placards that read: “Journalism is not a crime” and “Without fear or favour.”

Once inside, Choy pleaded not guilty to two counts of “knowingly making a false statement” to access number plate ownership records, a charge which could see her fined and jailed for up to six months if convicted.

The case comes as Beijing moves to stamp out dissent in the wake of huge democracy protests in 2019, under the aegis of a draconian national security law imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from July 1, 2020.

Choy’s program, titled “Who Owns The Truth?”, showed that police were present as the attackers gathered in Yuen Long, but delayed their response as men in white T-shirts started attacking train passengers at the MTR station.

Thirty-nine minutes elapsed between the first emergency calls to the final arrival of police at the Yuen Long MTR station, where dozens of people were already injured, and many were in need of hospital treatment, it showed.

It used footage filmed by witnesses and security cameras — as well as number plate searches and interviews — to piece together events, uncovering links between some of the attackers and the staunchly pro-China Heung Yee Kuk rural committees.

Choy’s program also showed that stick-wielding men had been brought into the district in specific vehicles hours before the attack, and that police had done nothing about the build-up in numbers.

She was arrested after the documentary aired in November 2020, allegedly because her use of the government vehicle database wasn’t for the permitted purposes.

“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 news reporting,” prosecutor Derek Lau told the court.

Defense attorney Derek Chan said Choy’s search was “related to traffic and transport matters” because she was trying to uncover who supplied weapons for the attackers, arguing that the court should take the “widest possible interpretation” of that definition.

He also argued that there was no statutory prohibition on vehicle license plate searches, and that it is in the public interest for the media to use the facility.

‘Just for show’

As Choy stood trial, one of the alleged attackers charged with “rioting” during the Yuen Long incident denied having used a stick he was holding to hit anyone, saying it was “just for show,” RTHK reported.

Ng Wai-nam, 57, said he had only waved the stick around and hit things with it, to try to disperse a crowd, and that the stick wasn’t even his.

Ng is among six men who deny a charge of rioting, while two others have pleaded guilty, the report said.

On Tuesday, former pro-democracy lawmaker Au Nok-hin was jailed for nine weeks for “assaulting” two police officers as he used a megaphone during a July 8, 2019 street protest in Mong Kok.

Au, who was already in custody after being charged under the national security law, was found guilty of hitting one officer’s shield with the loudhailer, and “hurting the ears” of another with the noise from it.

Au had originally been given community service, but was jailed by the Court of Appeal after the government asked for a review of the sentence.