An award-winning Hong Kong journalist won an appeal Monday quashing a conviction related to research for an investigative documentary, in a rare court ruling upholding media freedom in the Chinese territory.
Bao Choy was found guilty in April 2021 of deceiving the government by getting vehicle ownership records for journalistic purposes after she had declared in her online application that she would use the information for "other traffic and transport related issues."
The investigative journalist was trying to track down perpetrators of a mob attack on protesters and commuters inside a train station during massive anti-government protests in 2019 for her documentary.
Choy was fined 6,000 Hong Kong Dollars ($765) for two counts of making false statements at that time and called it "a very dark day for all journalists in Hong Kong."
That ruling also sparked outrage among local journalists over the city's shrinking press freedom.
On Monday, judges of the city's top court unanimously ruled in Choy's favor in a written judgment, quashing her conviction and setting aside the sentence.
"The issues of falsity and knowledge were wrongly decided against the appellant because her journalistic investigation into the use of the vehicle on the dates in question did fall into the wide catchall category of 'other traffic and transport related matters'," the judgment read.
Even if it did not, it was "not an irresistible inference that she knew that to be false," the judgment said. There is no reason that "bona fide journalism" should be excluded from the phrase, it added.
Choy told reporters outside the court the she was happy to learn about the judgment, saying it had stated the importance of the city's constitutionally protected freedom of press and speech.
"Over the last few years, we might have found that many things have disappeared quietly," she said. "But I believe our beliefs in our hearts can't be taken away that easily. No matter I win or lose today, the persistence (demonstrated) over the last few years is already a meaningful thing."
She said she hoped the outcome would be encouraging news to all reporters still working hard in the city.
The story Choy co-produced, titled "7.21 Who Owns the Truth," won the Chinese-language documentary award at the Human Rights Press Awards in 2021. The judging panel hailed it as "an investigative reporting classic" that had chased "the smallest clues, interrogating the powerful without fear or favor."
In the crackdown on dissent that followed the 2019 protests, two vocal media outlets — Apple Daily and Stand News — have been forced to shut down and some of their top managers have been prosecuted.
Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai faces collusion charges under a sweeping national security law enacted in 2020. Two former Stand News editors were charged under a colonial-era sedition law that has been used increasingly to snuff out critical voices.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to China's rule in 1997, but critics say Beijing's promise that it would keep the city's freedoms is becoming increasingly threadbare.
Hong Kong ranked 140 out of 180 countries and territories in Reporters Without Borders' latest World Press Freedom Index released last month. The global media watchdog said the city has experienced an unprecedented setback since 2020, when the security law was introduced.