An award-winning Hong Kong journalist lost her appeal Monday against her conviction over making false statements in obtaining information for her investigation of a violent attack during widespread pro-democracy protests in 2019.
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."
She was trying to track down perpetrators of a mob attack on protesters and commuters inside a train station for her documentary for public broadcaster RTHK.
That ruling sparked outrage among local media professionals over the city's shrinking press freedoms. Choy — who was fined 6,000 Hong Kong Dollars ($765) for two counts of making false statements — called it "a very dark day for all journalists in Hong Kong."
High Court Justice Alex Lee upheld the verdict in a written judgment, saying there are only three options available in the application form for conducting such searches: transport or traffic-related matters, legal matters, or vehicle purchases or sales. Journalism is not an option.
"I don't deny that the appellant was trying to obtain the information with good intentions. But as the magistrate had pointed out, in terms of conviction, having good intentions is not a justification," Lee said.
Flanked by veteran journalists who held up placards printed with "Fearless, Selfless," Choy said she was disappointed with the judgement.
"It's a decision that really hinders the access to free information in the city, which means that will create obstacles for the press to act as a brake on the abuse of power, and to monitor and hold the powerful accountable," she said.
The judgement also called into question whether other activities such as some due diligence searches would be considered illegal, she said, and the ruling's implication should be discussed by the wider society.
Choy added she would make a decision on whether to take the case to the Final Court of Appeal within a month.
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 months after the journalist was convicted, two media outlets — Apple Daily and Stand News — were forced to shut down during an ongoing crackdown on dissent following the 2019 protests in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to China's rule in 1997 with the promise by Beijing that it would keep the city's freedoms, but critics say that's no longer the case.
Some of the top management of the two outlets also have been prosecuted. Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai faces collusion charges under a sweeping national security law enacted in 2020.
A trial of two former Stand News editors charged under a colonial-era sedition law that has been used increasingly to snuff out critical voices is under way.
One of them, acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam, was granted bail on Monday after being detained for more than 10 months.
Hong Kong fell more than 60 spots to 148th place in Reporters Without Borders' latest World Press Freedom Index released in May.