Hong Kong has fined a journalist for ticking a field. That reveals town’s media freedoms are in jeopardy

In essence, Choy was prosecuted for ticking a field: She had used a authorities registry to hint license plates linked to a mob that had attacked pro-democracy protesters in a subway station in 2019.

Up to now, journalists had been in a position to specify “media” on the shape to elucidate why they have been looking the database. However in 2019 the shape modified, so Choy ticked “different visitors and transport associated issues.”

That was against the law. The 37-year-old was accused of violating Hong Kong’s Highway Site visitors Ordinance by making a false declaration and fined 6,000 Hong Kong {dollars} ($770).

To many onlookers, nevertheless, Choy’s case wasn’t about misused packing containers. It was an assault on journalism.

Though freedom of speech and the press are enshrined in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Primary Legislation, the media’s independence and skill to report has come beneath risk lately. The controversial nationwide safety regulation, a sweeping piece of laws handed final yr, urges the federal government to additional regulate media and the web.

Thugs smash Epoch Instances’ printing press in Hong Kong in April 2021. Credit score: Epoch Instances

Up to now month alone, there have been a slew of assaults on press freedom: A Chinese language state-run paper in Hong Kong known as for an embattled pro-democracy paper to close; town’s police chief proposed an anti-fake information regulation; and thugs accused of being linked to the Chinese language Communist Occasion smashed the printing press of an impartial newspaper.

Choy’s case is emblematic of the always shifting guidelines within the metropolis — the brand new actuality that actions deemed cheap in the future might result in prosecution the following.

Ticking a field

On a summer season evening in July 2019, a mob of about 70 males in white shirts stormed a Hong Kong subway station and commenced to beat commuters and protesters with iron bars and bamboo sticks.

Movies from the evening present commuters screaming in subway vehicles in Yuen Lengthy station, close to the border with mainland China. The lads appeared to focus on these wearing black coming back from pro-democracy demonstrations in one other a part of Hong Kong.

As folks frantically known as for assist, authorities acquired greater than 24,000 calls in three-and-a-half hours — effectively over the typical every day quantity, officers later advised town’s legislative physique.
However it took 39 minutes for the riot police to reach. By then, a lot of the white-clad mob had left, in keeping with an Impartial Police Complaints Council report.

Later, the police stated officers have been busy with protests on Hong Kong island, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) away. Not one of the white-clad males was arrested that evening, though dozens have been arrested subsequently.

To the pro-democracy camp, this was a turning level. Tensions have been already hovering after greater than a month of main protests, however the horrific scenes coupled with the police’s gradual response solely added to a deterioration of belief in officers. Many believed members of the mob — suspected by members of the general public to be linked to crime gangs — have been colluding with the authorities, though the police denied it.

It was that pivotal occasion that public broadcaster Radio Tv Hong Kong (RTHK) and freelance producer Choy needed to research.

The outlet obtained CCTV footage from across the subway station that evening which captured autos carrying males in white shirts. So Choy used what had lengthy been a normal journalistic methodology: She searched the automobile registration database to see who owned them.

A number of of the license plates, Choy discovered, have been linked to village representatives, or native leaders.

Bao Choy arrives at Fanling Magistrates' Court for a hearing.
Yuen Lengthy, an space nearer to mainland China than Hong Kong’s iconic Victoria Harbor, has allegedly lengthy been residence to so-called triad members, who researchers say have been used as “thugs for rent” in mainland China. Native Hong Kong officers have even confronted allegations of working with the legal gangs.

RTHK’s documentary supplied extra proof that when the white-clad mob attacked folks in Yuen Lengthy’s prepare station, they’d some official assist.

A violation or a seek for fact?

After RTHK’s 23-minute documentary, “Hong Kong Connection: 721 Who Owns the Fact,” was launched final yr, it received reward and awards, together with one final Wednesday from the Hong Kong Journalists Affiliation (HKJA).

However on November 3, 2020, Choy was arrested on suspicion of violating the Highway Site visitors Ordinance.

The federal government stated Choy’s case was the results of a grievance. At her trial, the choose dominated that automobile house owners anticipated privateness once they submitted their data to the Transport Division, and located her responsible of violating the ordinance, a cost carrying as much as six months in jail.
Radio Television Hong Kong producer Bao Choy arrives at the West Kowloon Courts building in Hong Kong on April 22, 2021.

Choy is believed to be the primary journalist convicted of violating the ordinance, and the primary particular person sentenced in reference to the Yuen Lengthy assaults, in keeping with her lawyer, Jonathan Man. Final week, police confirmed they arrested a reporter from state-owned pro-Beijing outlet Ta Kung Pao over the identical cost in February.

After the decision, Choy’s eyes grew purple as she stood, surrounded by cheering supporters and media, exterior a courtroom in West Kowloon the place many pro-democracy activists have been prosecuted over the previous yr.

“I consider that investigative journalism isn’t against the law,” she stated. “My journalistic values is not going to be affected by this case.”

Chris Yeung, the chair of the HKJA, known as the decision a “darkish day” for Hong Kong journalism.

“Press freedom in Hong Kong is dying,” he stated. “It is a effective for all journalists.”

To Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor at Chinese language College Hong Kong’s college of journalism and communication, stated the case is an indication the federal government is shifting the aim posts.

Earlier than the choice to specify media was faraway from the kinds in 2019, journalist requests have been widespread — in some years, they made up a quarter of all functions. In a press release to CNN Enterprise, Hong Kong Transport Division stated the 2019 revision was to “higher elaborate the needs for the avoidance of bewilderment” and famous that even earlier than the change, the information obtained by the request was solely meant for use for actions associated to visitors and transport issues.

However the case set a precedent that trying up a license plate for journalistic causes is not authorized — one other blow for freedom of knowledge, Tsui stated.

Tsui stated it additionally seems to indicate that authorities are ready to go after journalists who dig up issues that made them look dangerous. “It is arduous to not see this as an assault on fact,” he added.

In a press release to CNN Enterprise, the Hong Kong authorities stated any arrest had “nothing to do with the political stance, background or occupation” of the particular person involved.

Different blows

For years, Hong Kong was residence to a full of life media panorama with publications spanning the political spectrum. However the metropolis’s media freedoms have slowly diminished lately as mainland China’s affect over the previous British territory grows.

“Everybody in Hong Kong is self censoring,” stated Tsui stated. “Within the final couple of years, there was a sustained assault — not simply on press freedom, however on rights on the whole.”

A number of occasions in 2018, for instance, had a very chilling impact on the media atmosphere.

That yr, the Monetary Instances’ Asia editor Victor Mallet‘s software for a routine extension of his Hong Kong work allow was denied months after he hosted a chat by a pro-independence activist on the International Correspondent’s Membership. Outstanding English-language paper South China Morning Put up was criticized for working an interview with a Hong Kong writer who was detained within the mainland. The interview had been organized by China’s public safety ministry, elevating considerations concerning the newspaper’s resolution to run what some noticed as a coerced interview. Individually, a cultural establishment all of the sudden canceled a chat with exiled Chinese language author Ma Jian. The venue stated on the time it didn’t wish to develop into “a platform to advertise the political pursuits of any particular person.”

Police raid Apple Every day’s places of work in Hong Kong in August 2020. Credit score: Apple Every day

And media freedom advocates argue that the panorama has solely gotten extra hostile since final yr’s nationwide safety regulation got here into impact.

Whereas Carrie Lam, town’s chief, stated after that regulation was handed that Hong Kong folks ought to nonetheless be capable of take pleasure in freedom of speech and press, the brand new rule was later used to carry prices towards media mogul Jimmy Lai, the founding father of the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Every day. As police raided his newspaper’s places of work, they charged him with organizing an unauthorized protest and colluding with overseas forces.

The nationwide security-related prices towards Lai are nonetheless pending, and the laws has not but been used towards reporters. However Tsui, from Chinese language College Hong Kong, stated that might change sooner or later.

In a press release to CNN Enterprise on Tuesday, the Hong Kong authorities stated it’s “firmly dedicated to defending and respecting the liberty of the press, which is a elementary proper assured by the Primary Legislation.”

When requested whether or not it was possible journalists could be prosecuted beneath the nationwide safety regulation sooner or later, the federal government stated that “law-abiding folks is not going to unwittingly violate the regulation.”

Strain on journalists has continued to mount this yr. In February, for instance, Xia Baolong, the director of China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Workplace, known as for Hong Kong’s media to be run by “patriots.”

Members of the media are feeling the squeeze, too. Final yr, the HKJA discovered a 3rd of journalists surveyed felt pressured by their seniors to drop or cut back reporting on Hong Kong independence. And Keith B. Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Research Heart on the College of Hong Kong and the pinnacle of town’s International Correspondents Membership, stated journalists had famous some sources did not wish to discuss anymore.

A current rating of worldwide press freedoms signifies that the atmosphere in Hong Kong has modified. The worldwide watchdog Reporters With out Borders — which qualifies such freedoms based mostly on knowledge on abuse and acts of violence towards journalists together with a questionnaire to consultants — ranked Hong Kong 80 out of 180 international locations for press freedom, down from 18 out of 138 in 2002.

Pressures on RTHK

Maybe no publication in Hong Kong has extra soul looking to do than public broadcaster RTHK in terms of navigating the brand new panorama. Over the previous 12 months, the station — which started broadcasting in 1928, when town was beneath British rule — has axed episodes of present affairs reveals, stopped broadcasting BBC World information packages, and investigated one its most profitable reporters who turned identified for her probing questions of officers.
Hong Kong public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) staffers wear masks depicting the journalist Nabela Qoser during a silent protest against the management's treatment of her outside Broadcasting House on January 28, 2021 in Hong Kong.
In February, the Hong Kong authorities introduced the broadcaster’s director Leung Ka-wing could be stepping down early, to get replaced by Patrick Li, a civil servant with none media expertise — prompting RTHK’s program employees union to say the station had misplaced its editorial independence.
As he started in his new job in March, Li advised reporters there was no “freedom with out restraint.” And on Tuesday, RTHK introduced a brand new slot for chief government Lam who will now seem on the channel 4 instances every week to debate Beijing’s overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system.

In an emailed assertion to CNN Enterprise, RTHK stated it doesn’t touch upon particular person courtroom circumstances or staffing points. The broadcaster stated that it suspended the BBC World Service after the Nationwide Radio and Tv Administration introduced that BBC World Information was not allowed to proceed inside Chinese language territory. Its packages should abide by the constitution, the producers’ tips and the legal guidelines of Hong Kong, the broadcaster added. “As stipulated within the Constitution, RTHK is editorially impartial.”

As for Choy, the RTHK reporter: When requested by the media Tuesday whether or not Choy’s verdict undermined investigative journalism, Lam stated no person is above the regulation.

“If the regulation in the present day does not can help you do sure issues — and regardless that we respect freedom of speech and I acknowledge your career — you can’t do it. We have to steadiness the pursuits of various events.”

Beijing’s financial affect

There are considerations that mainland China’s elevated financial affect on Hong Kong might exert strain on media shops within the metropolis.

Clement So, a Chinese language College of Hong Kong professor who research Hong Kong’s media panorama, stated up to now decade, a rising variety of media organizations had mainland Chinese language funding, one thing he believed might result in self-censorship.

After distinguished English-language paper the South China Morning Put up (SCMP) was purchased by Chinese language tech big Alibaba in 2015, for instance, there was concern the paper’s editorial freedom could be compromised. Critics have hyper-analyzed the publication for indicators of Beijing’s affect — nevertheless it has continued to report on matters that Chinese language state media do not contact, such because the Hong Kong protests and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Employees work in the newsroom of the South China Morning Post (SCMP) in Hong Kong, on June 5, 2020.
Final month Bloomberg and Wall Avenue Journal reported the Chinese language authorities needed the Alibaba group to shed a few of its media property — probably together with SCMP — as a consequence of its outsize affect over public opinion, after its founder Jack Ma fell from grace for publicly criticizing Chinese language monetary regulators. If Beijing not accepted of Ma, one among China’s digital darlings and international success tales, proudly owning the newspaper, it raised questions over who is likely to be deemed an acceptable purchaser.

An SCMP journalist — who requested to not be named — stated they and others within the newsroom felt an “instantaneous panic,” fearing the client may very well be a state-owned entity or pro-Beijing firm.

In an inside e mail seen by CNN Enterprise, nevertheless, SCMP chief government Gary Liu stated Alibaba’s dedication to SCMP “stays unchanged,” and the corporate “is not going to be responding publicly to those unsubstantiated rumors.” CNN Enterprise has reached out to Alibaba for remark.

The experiences additionally offered a silver lining, although. To the worker, the widespread concern over SCMP’s future confirmed the paper’s worth.

“A minimum of we’re having conversations now about why the SCMP is definitely taking part in fairly an necessary position and what that will imply if it was misplaced,” the SCMP journalist stated.

Observe the cash

To journalist Ronson Chan, vice-chairman of the HKJA, all this factors to an unmistakable conclusion: there’s now a doable hazard in being a journalist in Hong Kong.

“In case you ask my coronary heart, after all, I do know being a journalist, particularly working for a non-Beijing managed media, should have some warning or doable hazard,” stated Chan, who has labored throughout 11 media shops, together with at non-profit investigative information company FactWire, the place he labored with Choy.

Now an editor at non-profit pro-democracy information web site Stand Information, he says he would not be shocked if he was arrested.

A part of the issue is a elementary disagreement over the aim of stories. Whereas Western journalism principle sees worth in objectivity and holding authority to account, Chinese language leaders see it has a “device of political propaganda,” he stated.

Chan believes China’s historical past of cracking down on dissidents and journalists tells him he ought to depart town, earlier than he’s prosecuted. That is one thing he has mentioned along with his spouse. “I do not know if it’ll develop into an proof in my prosecution speaking to you in the present day,” he stated.

It would not be the primary time: interviews Apple Every day’s Lai gave to worldwide media have been cited as proof in his nationwide safety regulation circumstances.

However ultimately, Chan desires to proceed reporting in his metropolis.

“Hong Kong is our residence,” stated Chan. “If we left, the Hong Kong folks don’t have any information to learn.”

— CNN’s Eric Cheung contributed reporting from Hong Kong.

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