A Hong Kong court has found a journalist guilty of making false statements to obtain public records to produce a documentary critical of the city’s police force.
The award-winning film exposed the police’s delayed response to a mob attack on anti-government protesters in July 2019, in which suspected gangsters hit protesters, journalists, and passers-by with sticks and clubs at Yuen Long train station in northern Hong Kong.
The police’s handling of the emergency incensed supporters of the 2019 pro-democracy movement and deepened resentment against a police force that cracked down on months of protests demanding democracy and accountability.
While several attackers have been arrested and charged with assault, the Thursday verdict made the journalist, Bao Choy, the first person connected to the attack to be convicted of a crime.
Aired a year after the attack, Choy’s documentary for the public broadcaster RTHK exposed how police officers turned a blind eye to the gathering of would-be assiliants. As part of the investigation, Choy looked up the ownership of cars that were seen transporting suspected attackers in surveillance footage.
The acclaimed documentary prompted renewed discussions about authorities’ connection with the assailants. However, prosecutors accused Choy of making a false statement to obtain data, citing a law that says the car records could only be used for transport-related matters.
The government has since sought to limit access to public records that were once readily available. On Thursday, despite strong protest from journalists and rights groups, Choy was found guilty and fined HK$6,000 ($770).
“Even though I was [found] guilty, I don’t see journalism as a crime,” Choy, with tears in her eyes and surrounded by supporters, told reporters after the conviction. “And I hope the industry can find ways out to pursue our highest values of journalism in the long run.”
Journalists’ groups have criticized the unprecedented conviction for causing chilling effects on investigative journalism in Hong Kong.
Beijing had promised that Hong Kong would enjoy press freedom when it resumed control of the former British colony in 1997. But concerns over shrinking freedoms have grown as Beijing tightens its grip over the semi-autonomous region.
Hong Kong’s press freedom ranking slipped from 18th in 2002 to 80th in 2020 in a report published by Reporters Without Borders, which cited a national security law imposed by Beijing as a serious threat to journalists.
Publicly-funded RTHK, known for its hard-hitting journalism, has been put under government review. It recently terminated a long-term contract with a journalist famous for throwing pointed questions at government officials, and ended the three-decade run of a satirical show that made fun of the police.
Under a new boss appointed by the pro-Beijing local government, the broadcaster has declined to pick up a journalism award won by the documentary Choy produced.
Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.