Journalist Bao Choy wins appeal at Hong Kong’s top court

Court of Final Appeal overturns conviction saying a ‘substantial and grave injustice’ had been done.

Journalist Bao Choy speaking outside Hong Kong's top court after she was cleared. She is surrounded by microphones held out by local journalists
Journalist Bao Choy speaks outside court after she was cleared [Louise Delmotte/AP Photo]

Documentary journalist Bao Choy has won her appeal at Hong Kong’s top court over a conviction for accessing vehicle registration records.

Choy, who was working for public broadcaster RTHK as a freelancer, aimed to use the records to find out who was involved in a violent assault on protesters and train travellers at the Yuen Long station during the 2019 mass protests.

She was convicted in April 2021, on two counts of making false statements to obtain information and fined 6,000 Hong Kong dollars ($764).

The appeal to the Court of Final Appeal, which began on May 3, was her last chance to overturn the ruling.

In a written judgement on Monday, the Court of Final Appeal said a “substantial and grave injustice” was done to Choy by inferring that she knowingly made false statements when accessing the search application database for vehicle registration records.

The judgement said there was no reason for “bona fide journalism” to be excluded from the phrase.

The case hinged on what constitutes “traffic and transport-related matters” – one of three reasons available to those searching public records online – and whether it includes reporting. The other options are “transport-related legal proceedings” or the “sale and purchase of vehicle”.

Choy chose the former because it involved the use of a vehicle on a road.

Armed men in white T-shirts and helmets at the Yuen Long Station in July 2019
Choy wanted to identify the armed men involved in the Yuen Long attack for her award-winning documentrary ‘7.21 Who Owns the Truth’ [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Choy told reporters outside the court the she was happy with the decision, saying it had stated the importance of the city’s constitutionally protected freedom of press and speech.

She said she hoped it would be an encouragement to all reporters still working in the city.

Hong Kong’s once vibrant local media has come under pressure since China imposed a national security law in 2020 with outlets such as the Apple Daily and Stand News forced to close. Last year, the territory fell to 148th in the world in Reporters Without Borders’s press freedom ranking.

Before Choy’s arrest, it was common practice for Hong Kong media to access public records, such as vehicle, land and company registrations, for use in their reporting and none had ever been prosecuted.

The attack at Yuen Long took place amid heightened tensions over mass opposition to a bill put forward by then Chief Executive Carrie Lam that would have allowed people to be extradited to mainland China.

The violent assault by men carrying sticks and poles was livestreamed on social media but it was 39 minutes before police arrived at the scene.

Seven pro-government supporters were jailed in July 2021, for what the trial judge described as an “indiscriminate attack”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies