RTHK producer Bao Choy (C) arrives with her supporters to West Kowloon Magistrates Court in Hong Kong on Wednesday for her trial on charges related to her story that exposed the authorities' delayed response to a mob attack on anti-government protesters in 2019. The charges against her intensified the perception of a crackdown on press freedom in the city. Photo: AFP / Peter Parks

An award-winning Hong Kong journalist went on trial on Wednesday 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 favor.”

Choy pleaded not guilty to two counts of “knowingly making a false statement” to access numberplate ownership records.

She faces up to six months in jail and a HK$5,000 fine ($640) 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 failure of police to respond quickly enough to the July 2019 assault was a turning point in the huge and often violent pro-democracy protests that year, further hammering public trust in the force.

Police have repeatedly defended how their officers responded.

RTHK used footage filmed by witnesses and security cameras – as well as 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 buildup 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.

Sliding media freedom

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

But 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 news reporting,” prosecutor Derek Lau said. 

Defense 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, adding that the court should take the “widest possible interpretation” of that definition.

He also criticized the way authorities had suddenly sought to bring such a privacy prosecution. 

“It’s only now that the prosecution said the ordinance never intended to allow reporters to access the registries. Does this sound realistic to the court?” he said.

All media are state-controlled in authoritarian mainland China while foreign reporters face heavy restrictions. 

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

But the city has slid down media freedom rankings in recent years.

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.

RTHK has increasingly found itself caught in the crossfire.

Modelled on Britain’s BBC, RTHK is publicly funded and editorially independent of Hong Kong’s government.

But authorities have taken more direct control after pro-Beijing groups accused it of being sympathetic to democracy supporters.

The broadcaster’s union has complained that self-censorship and pressure to become more like China’s state media have increased.

RTHK also suspended Choy from work soon after her arrest in November.