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February 21, 2024

Interview: ‘There is a human instinct to tell the truth and to find out the truth’

Investigative journalist Bao Choy was arrested and tried after she made a documentary exposing the Hong Kong police force’s handling of the July 21, 2019, mob attacks on train passengers in Yuen Long at the height of the protest movement against the erosion of the city’s promised freedoms.

Choy, whose film “7/21: Who Owns The Truth?” tracked the movements of suspected attackers on the night of the attacks, had pleaded not guilty to two counts of “knowingly making a false statement” to access number plate ownership records.

She was found guilty of the charge and fined H.K.$6,000, and lost an appeal against the conviction at the High Court earlier this month. 

Choy recently spoke to Radio Free Asia’s Cantonese Service about the case, saying she plans to take it to the Court of Final Appeal.

“I didn’t appeal to get a certain result; that was the least important thing about it and these things are out of our control, actually,” Choy said. “All my legal team could do was put their opinions on points of law, but how the court viewed our case was beyond our control.”

Choy said her arrest had made her realize that things had now changed in Hong Kong’s legal system, which was once lauded as a model for the rule of law and judicial independence.

“I readjusted my expectations after my arrest, because it seemed at that point that anything could happen,” she said. “I have been managing my own expectations all along the way.”

At the time of her arrest, Choy was working for government broadcast Radio Television Hong Kong, producing documentary and investigative films for a weekly series titled “Hong Kong Connection.”

Attacking passengers

Choy’s film showed that police were present as the attackers gathered in Yuen Long, but delayed their response for 39 minutes as men in white T-shirts started attacking train passengers at the MTR station.

The film used footage filmed by witnesses and security cameras — as well as number plate searches and interviews — to piece together events, uncovering links between some of the attackers and the staunchly pro-Beijing Heung Yee Kuk rural committees.

Choy’s program also showed that stick-wielding men had been brought into the district in specific vehicles hours before the attack, and that police had done nothing about the build-up in numbers.

She was arrested after the documentary aired in November 2020, allegedly because her use of the government vehicle database wasn’t for the permitted purposes.

“If you want to get to an answer that is closest to the truth, you need to first be in touch with the material facts,” Choy told RFA. “A lot of the time there are ways to do that, such as informants, whistleblowers and primary sources like documents, photos and videos.”

“These materials get you close to the truth.”

Choy’s arrest came amid ongoing moves to stamp out public dissent and peaceful opposition in Hong Kong, in the wake of huge democracy protests in 2019.

The Fourth Estate

Choy said Hong Kong once enjoyed a free press, along with certain shared assumptions about the role of journalists as the “fourth estate” in a democratic society.

“In the past, there was a belief that journalists had fourth estate rights, and that reports that used such services to verify information were legitimate,” she said. “Society recognized and believed in the principle that certain events were a matter of public interest, so journalists had the right to access this kind of information.”

Choy said there is now an emphasis on personal privacy protection in government departments that ignores and devalues the need of journalists to report in the public interest.

“It’s so narrow,” she said.

Hong Kong passed amendments to its privacy law in 2021 banning “doxxing,” or the online disclosure of anyone’s personal information, which includes that of officials or public figures suspected of wrongdoing. 

According to the city’s Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, nobody should use personal data “for any new purpose unrelated to the original purpose when the data was collected without first obtaining the data subject’s express and voluntary consent.”

Plunging press freedom rank

In May, the city plummeted to 148th on a global press freedom index, as Reporters Without Borders cited the ongoing crackdown on the pro-democracy media that has targeted the Apple Daily, Stand News and Citizen News, among other outlets. 

The implementation of the national security law since July 1, 2020 has ushered in a crackdown on pro-democracy media organizations, activists and politicians in Hong Kong, with many former journalists joining the steady stream of people leaving their home to seek a less restricted life elsewhere. 

In its judgment rejecting Choy’s appeal, the High Court said that her motives were undeniably good, but said any conflict of interest between privacy concerns and the media should be resolved through legislation.

But for Choy, her arrest signaled a sea change for the city’s journalists, and not a welcome one.

“The industry had been working like this for decades, and then suddenly we’re told that it’s a crime,” she said. “Now they can pick on people and turn them into criminals.”

She said journalists don’t expect absolute immunity when handling private or sensitive information, and rarely expose people’s details without their consent.

“We are very cautious in the way that we handle personal information,” Choy said. “We don’t disclose the names of [our sources].”

“Before 2019, there was a consensus that lasted for many years that certain newsgathering activities were allowed, so it used to be legal, but in my case, it suddenly became illegal,” she said. “The discussion becomes much more interesting when you start to ask why the press need such powers.”

Lack of access

Fellow journalist Joey Leung said Choy’s case is already having an impact when it comes to the use of public records when carrying out investigative journalism.

“I saw a Chinese and a Hong Kong license plate [while reporting a recent story] but since Bao’s case my organization won’t allow me to check them out,” Leung told RFA. 

The story also involved a short-term lease, but the government’s lands department wouldn’t supply the name of the lease-holder, he said.

“We had no clue who it was — it could have been someone famous, or someone who habitually breaks the law,” he said. “There was no way of knowing.”

Leung said business reporting has also been impacted by Choy’s arrest and fine.

“Company searches have now changed significantly,” he said. “You can look up the names of the directors and where they live, but there are only four digits of their ID card number visible now, and we need to be 100 percent sure it is a particular person if we’re going to write a story about them.”

“One by one, all the search tools we used are getting more and more restrictive … clearly they don’t want the media finding out all this stuff, so our chances of getting to the truth are decreasing,” Leung said.

Choy, who was given the go-ahead to appeal to the Court of Final Appeal on Nov. 18, said there are still some workarounds available to journalists, and that she hasn’t given up on the profession just yet, however.

“Yes, we’ve paid a high price, but I wouldn’t call the situation hopeless,” she said. “There is a human instinct to tell the truth and to discover the truth, so journalism will always be there.”

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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