Bao Choy reacts on April 22 after she was found guilty of improperly searching a public vehicle license database. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP

Hong Kong A Hong Kong journalist who was prosecuted over investigating an attack on democracy supporters by government loyalists won a prestigious press prize on Thursday, even after her employer backed out of the awards.

Bao Choy, a former producer with Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK, was found guilty last month of “knowingly making a false statement” to access number plate ownership records a conviction that was decried by media groups as an assault on public interest journalism.

On Thursday, Choy and five colleagues won the Chinese-language documentary award at the annual Human Rights Press Awards for their work “Who Owns the Truth?”.

Supporters hold posters after Bao Choy was found convicted of improperly tracking down the perpetrators of an attack on democracy supporters by government loyalists. Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP

The awards recognise human rights reporting across Asia and have been running for 25 years.

Judges praised the RTHK documentary for “chasing the smallest clues, interrogating the powerful without fear or favor”, and described the 23-minute documentary as “an investigative reporting classic”.

The July 2019 attack in the district of Yuen Long by a gang of men armed with clubs and the police’s failure to respond quickly enough was a turning point in the huge and often violent pro-democracy protests that year, further hammering public trust in the police force and city leaders.

RTHK used footage from 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 that 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.

Police have rejected any accusation their officers failed the public that night and senior officers have since sought to recast the ambush as an evenly matched melee between two opposing sides. 

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

But authorities introduced a rule change that meant journalists were no longer allowed to make searches.

Choy, 37, faced up to six months in jail but was ultimately fined HK$6,000 ($770). She plans to appeal her conviction.

Beijing has made no secret of its desire to see Hong Kong’s critical media tamed and RTHK has increasingly found itself a government target.

Authorities have ordered an overhaul of the broadcaster, including the recent appointment of a career civil servant as its new head who has since pulled multiple shows for “one-sided views” and “inaccuracies”.

RTHK suspended Choy after her November arrest and did not contribute to her legal defence.

It also announced it had withdrawn from all press award entries but many award organisations, including HRPA, declined to accept the withdrawal.

Earlier this week RTHK fired reporter Nabela Qoser who had become famous for her aggressive questioning of officials at press conferences.