The arrest of a producer from public broadcaster RTHK allegedly linked to a report on a mob attack on protesters is raising more concerns about the state of press freedom in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers and the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) have condemned the arrest of RTHK producer Bao Choy, who worked on programs about the July 21, 2019 attack in Yuen Long.
Choy, who is employed by the public broadcaster on a freelance basis, was arrested at her home in Mei Foo at about 1 pm on Tuesday (November 3), RTHK reported. Choy was accused of violating the Road Traffic Ordinance in some car plate searches, according to the report.
Sources told RTHK that the arrest was in connection with searches carried out on the personal information of the owners of vehicles seen picking up men suspected of being involved in the Yuen Long attack on July 21, 2019.
The Hong Kong Connection program, entitled 7.21 Who Owns the Truth, showed clips from surveillance cameras at shops in Yuen Long and interviewed people who were identified in the footage.
After the episode aired in the summer, police admitted that plainclothes officers had been patrolling Yuen Long before the rampage took place. On July 21 last year, hundreds of men wearing white shirts gathered near the Yuen Long MTR station and attacked some commuters.
According to a statement issued the following day, the police force strongly condemned the violent incident in Yuen Long after “some people attacked commuters at the platforms of the Yuen Long MTR station and train compartments, resulting in multiple injuries.”
However, in August this year, police sought to present an entirely new version of events about the mob violence as they arrested some of the victims, including Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting, who was held on suspicion of “rioting.”
Rather than an indiscriminate attack, the force’s new description of events was of a fight between two “equally-matched” sides. Police have so far arrested more than 60 people, including some of the alleged attackers and also some victims.
Lam, who was among those injured in the Yuen Long violence, described Choy as a professional journalist who had “asked all the right questions” in the Hong Kong Connection program.
“I do think that the police operation will inevitably create a chilling effect that those journalists who dare to report any wrongdoings of the government officials or the pro-establishment camp have been facing great pressure and I urge them to stand firm and report the truth … without fear or favor,” Lam added.
“The show revealed how police were patrolling the town before the rampage and took no action over the men wielding weapons,” RTHK said in a tweet announcing Choy’s arrest.
Claudia Mo, a Council Front lawmaker and also a former journalist, described the arrest of the RTHK producer as “ridiculous.” Mo said conducting car plate searches was a common practice in Hong Kong, especially for journalists. She also said the arrest would undermine Hong Kong’s press freedom.
The HKJA expressed shock and outrage that Choy was arrested for the 7.21 Who Owns the Truth program. It criticized the police’s action as rude, unreasonable and ridiculous and demanded Choy’s immediate release.
The HKJA also said company registry and car plate searches were common practices for investigative journalism in Hong Kong. It said using the Road Traffic Ordinance to suppress news activity would erode the freedom of the press in the city.
“I think authorities are now exhausting every possible way to suppress the press, to make it difficult, if not impossible, for reporters to do their job to dig out the truth, to publish stories that make them [the authorities] feel embarrassed,” said HKJA chairman Chris Yeung.
The arrest will put pressure on other journalists in the territory, who may be deterred from conducting similar background checks in the future, Yeung said.
Leung Ka-wing, the director of broadcasting for RTHK, said on Tuesday that he was worried that the arrest would have a chilling effect on journalists.
“We are afraid. We are worried … we better say we are worried, whether we can continue the way we produce accurate news as before,” Leung said. However, RTHK would not alter its editorial principles or stop investigative reporting, he added.
Hong Kong journalists frequently use company registries and car plate searches for their investigative reports. The searches for news activities is also exempted from data protection provisions, according to the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.
A search of the information of a car plate’s owner costs HK$45 (US$5.80), according to the website of the Transport Department. An applicant has to declare that a certificate of particulars of a vehicle is applied for traffic and transport-related purposes, which include legal proceedings, the sale and purchase of a vehicle and “others.”
Under local law, a person may be fined up to HK$5,000 or imprisoned for six months for providing false information in the application form.
Albert Luk, a barrister, said there was room to debate in court about whether the arrest had violated the Cap. 374 Road Traffic Ordinance, Section 111, due to insufficient court cases for reference.
Amen Ng, a spokeswoman for RTHK, confirmed that a colleague at the public broadcaster had been arrested on Tuesday. However, Ng declined to make further comments as the broadcaster was investigating the case.
Police had not yet held a media briefing about the arrest when Asia Times went to press.
Meanwhile, pro-government lawmaker Junius Ho, who was seen shaking hands with some white-shirted people shortly before the Yuen Long attack, last Friday won the seat of chairman of the Legislative Council’s Panel on Information Technology and Broadcasting.
Ho has called for RTHK to be merged with the government’s Information Services Department. He said the public broadcaster should promote the administration’s policies with a view to “projecting an accurate image of the city.”