Hong Kong journalist appears in court as crackdown fears grow

Hong Kong journalist Bao Choy Yuk-ling before entering a local court in Hong Kong on November 10, 2020.

Hong Kong (CNN)An award-winning Hong Kong journalist appeared in court Tuesday, on charges related to her role in helping to investigate alleged police mishandling of a violent mob attack on democracy supporters in 2019.

The case has intensified concerns over shrinking press freedoms in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, as authorities continue to crackdown on prominent figures linked to last year's anti-government protest movement.
Bao Choy, an employee of the public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), was arrested last week in connection with data on vehicle registrations she used for an investigative documentary.
    The piece examined the July 21 mob attack at Yuen Long subway station last year, which saw dozens of suspected gang members violently attack pro-democracy supporters.
      Footage of the attack posted on social media showed masked men, wearing white T-shirts and armed with batons and metal rods, blindly attacking unarmed crowds on the platform and inside train carriages in the far northwest of Hong Kong.
      At the time of the Yuen Long incident, Hong Kong police were widely criticized for their slow response, and protesters accused law enforcement officials of working with the gangs -- a charge the police repeatedly denied.
      At Fanling Magistrates Court on Tuesday, Choy, 37, was charged with two counts of making false statements under the Road Traffic Ordinance, over her attempts to obtain publicly available drivers information as part of the investigation.
        During the course of the RTHK investigation, reporters sifted through CCTV footage from the night of the attack and identified several vehicles parked close to the suspected gang members. Using a registration database they then obtained information about the owners of those vehicles and contacted them for comment.
        According to a charge sheet, Bao made false statements when seeking access to the data.
        Speaking outside the court Tuesday, Choy told reporters that "many scholars, unions and lawyers are concerned whether the police are using the law to suppress press freedom in Hong Kong."
        She said her case raised concerns about "whether journalists will still be free to obtain public information in the future," and urged the government to listen to the voice and opinion of society.
        Choy's case has been adjourned until January 14, while police finish their investigation. If found guilty, Choy could face six months' imprisonment and a fine of up to HK$5,000 ($645).
        In a statement, the Hong Kong Journalists Association said that checking publicly accessible databases -- such as vehicle registration marks -- was a "common investigative tool" employed by journalists in Hong Kong, and has been crucial in helping reporters uncover important stories such as electoral fraud and illegal construction.
        "We are extremely shocked and infuriated by police's unreasonable and ridiculous move," it said. "Police have abused the Road Traffic Ordinance in suppressing normal reporting activities, and this is set to damage press freedom."
        Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has rejected criticism the arrest represents a crackdown on press freedom in the Asian financial center.

        Lawmakers threaten to quit en masse

        The case comes as Hong Kong pro-democracy opposition legislators raise concerns that Beijing is cracking down on genuine political opposition in the city, following the imposition of a new national security law on June 30.
        The wide-reaching law, which was imposed on Hong Kong without public consultation, criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers, and many fear it is being used to override existing legal processes and erode the city's civil and political freedoms.
        On Monday, pro-democracy lawmakers threatened to resign en masse over reports that Beijing could seek to have them removed. RTHK reported that Beijing could unseat at least four lawmakers in the coming days for violating Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, by filibustering meetings.