Outrage after RTHK journalist arrested

Finance | Michael Shum and Erin Chan 4 Nov 2020

An RTHK producer was last night charged with two counts of making false declarations after searching car ownership information for a program covering the controversial July 21 Yuen Long assaults last year.

Choy Yuk-ling, 37, became the first journalist arrested for breaching the Road Traffic Ordinance after checking vehicle registrations during news gathering in May and June this year.

She was released on HK$1,000 police bail and will appear in Fanling Magistrates Court next Tuesday.

Veteran journalists were astonished by her arrest using one of the most common reporting techniques, calling it alarming and "white terror" against investigative journalism, while barristers said reporting was never a legitimate reason to conduct car-plate searches.

A police spokesman said a woman was arrested at her Mei Foo home after an investigation by the New Territories North crime unit on complaints about a TV program publicizing car registration data.

He said Choy allegedly obtained vehicle ownership information, including the owner's name, address and identity card number, through the Transport Department system.

"But she did not use such information for the purposes that she declared before obtaining such information, therefore she was arrested on suspicion of violating the Road Ordinance," the spokesman said.

"According to the ordinance, anyone who knowingly makes false statements to obtain information under the legislation is liable to a fine of HK$5,000 and to imprisonment for six months," he added.

Still detained under police custody at nine o'clock last night, sources said Choy's arrest was in connection to a controversial episode of Hong Kong Connection she co-produced covering the Yuen Long MTR Station assaults on July 21 last year.

Aired on July 13 this year, the episode showed a reporter conducting online vehicle searches based on surveillance camera footage capturing cars driving white-shirted men away from the assault scene. The reporter then used the information to look for the car owners and invited them for interviews.

Director of Broadcasting Leung Ka-wing said Choy's arrest could have a chilling effect on journalists.

Asked if he would call for staffers to stop similar investigative reports, he said: "Why should I ask them to stop?

"This is a rare incident. If the offense is related to reporting or news gathering, the news industry should treat this seriously."

The chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Chris Yeung Kin-hing, said a lot of reports involving public interest have been revealed by running car-plate searches.

"Those on unauthorized building works within government officials' apartments and vote-rigging incidents. It's a common methodology used by reporters in their investigation," he said. "This will destroy freedom of the press."

He also slammed the police for being "unreasonable and ludicrous" and demanded Choy's immediate release.

The Hong Kong News Executives' Association said it is highly concerned at Choy's arrest.

"Police using the Road Traffic Ordinance against Choy raises doubts over the rationale and purpose of their action," it said, adding that it undermines press freedom.

The association also said running car plates searches is a common practice used by journalists in investigative reporting, which is of public interest.

It therefore calls on the authorities to respect press freedom and the public's right to know.

Barrister Anson Wong Yu-yat said that public interest cannot be the rationale for defending Choy's search on car ownership for news coverage.

"The relevant offense under the Road Traffic Ordinance is to knowingly make any statement which is false in a material particular," he said.

"There is no defense known as 'public interest' in relation to this offense. However, an issue which may arise is whether criminalizing journalists in these circumstances constitutes a disproportionate restriction of the freedom of the press."

However, barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung said the law states that users should only obtain information on the car owner through the system for a legitimate purpose.

"Reporting work was never a reason. Reporters were not held accountable before, but that does not mean it is allowed.

"Whether journalists can use public interest as a defense will have to be decided by the court," Luk said.

HK First lawmaker and former journalist Claudia Mo Man-ching said she was shocked about the arrest of Choy. She also slammed the police for using traffic legislation to catch a media personnel's mistake.

"The police are picking on RTHK a hundred percent, and they are trying to warn the broadcaster to be careful while reporting in the future," Mo said.

"According to my understanding, at least a quarter of the information on car ownership had been used by the media for news reporting. What is so unusual about that?"

A vehicle ownership search through the government system provides users with personal information of the owner, including name and address, which are intended for legal proceedings, sales and purchase of vehicle or other traffic and transport-related matters only.

The application form to run a car ownership search was updated in October last year.

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