A decorated Hong Kong reporter who produced an investigative documentary on the July 21, 2019 subway mob attack was arrested by police on Tuesday. The journalist, Choy Yuk-ling, who also goes by Bao Choy, was arrested for allegedly making “false statements” while accessing public records to conduct a vehicle license plate search. Choy was working with Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), which has come under intense government scrutiny this year for its news and entertainment coverage.
The July 21 incident, widely known in Hong Kong as the 7.21 incident, was a bombshell moment and a galvanizing event in the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests. That evening, a mob of white-shirted men stormed a subway station in Yuen Long and attacked pro-democracy protestors and commuters, including an elected lawmaker, on a stopped train. The attack was broadcast and streamed online live, and even after police received 24,000 calls to its emergency hotline, officers were seen walking away from the scene, taking 39 minutes to finally respond.
Choy was heavily involved in producing an award-winning RTHK documentary episode that aired in July, on the one-year anniversary of the attack. Titled “Who Owns the Truth?” the episode won international awards for investigative reporting. For the New York Times, Austin Ramzy and Elaine Yu reported on the particulars of the documentary that landed Choy in hot water on Tuesday:
Ms. Choy worked on some of the most notable inquiries into police conduct, including a prizewinning episode of the program “Hong Kong Connection” that examined the slow response by officers to a mob attack on a group of protesters and commuters in a train station on July 21, 2019.
Ms. Choy, who is employed by RTHK on a freelance contract, was arrested on Tuesday afternoon.
The police said they arrested Ms. Choy for making a false statement about why she was obtaining license information from a publicly accessible database. Such offenses could be punishable with fines of $645 and six months’ imprisonment.
In an investigative documentary that aired in July, one year after the mob attack, RTHK journalists looked up the license plates of vehicles caught on video transporting the suspected assailants and traced them to community leaders in the territory’s outlying villages. [Source]
In the documentary, which was posted on YouTube where it received 1.3 million views, RTHK reporters can be seen reviewing CCTV footage from the scene and using the vehicle license plate database at the 10 minute mark. Reporters tracked vehicles identified from the footage, one of which can be seen delivering weapons to the white-shirted mob.
Journalists in Hong Kong regularly use vehicle license plate records as well as other publicly available information in their reporting. Hong Kong Free Press’ Selina Cheng explained why and how Hong Kong reporters use the license plate database:
Hong Kong vehicle licence records contain the personal data of vehicle owners, including their name, residential address and Hong Kong ID card number – all of which can be purchased from a government website. To access a “Certificate of Particulars of Motor Vehicle,” a fee must be paid and the purchaser must declare one of three purposes for obtaining the record: transport related proceedings; the sale and purchase of a vehicle; or traffic and transport related matters. [Source]
I once attended a public lecture by a local NGO which, among other topics, demonstrated how to access the Companies Registry.
When the user had to declare a reason for searching, the speaker said: “Don’t worry, that’s just there to scare you,” before indicating which box to tick https://t.co/mHJ8VGYzN8
— Aaron Mc Nicholas (@aaronMCN) November 3, 2020
The Hong Kong government has been making it harder to access public records. Alex Lam, a reporter for Apple Daily, wrote on Twitter that the Transport Department revised the usage permissions for their license plate search service, effectively barring journalists from legally using it:
On the application form for the search, "Others" is now redefined as "other traffic and transport related matters". With no room for elaboration, there is now only 3 legitimate purposes left, along with "legal proceedings" and "sale and purchase of vehicle". pic.twitter.com/N7Y8KuPvj4
— Alex Lam 林偉聰 (@lwcalex) November 3, 2020
Limitations on usage of the license plate database are not the only way that the Hong Kong government has made it harder for journalists to access public information. Citing the risk of doxxing to its officers, a Hong Kong police union recently tried to limit public access to voter registry information, although its efforts were blocked by a court in April. Police have also revised rules around media access at demonstrations, refusing to recognize certain credentials and banning online-only media outlets from reporting at protest sites. Local reporters have decried the chilling effect that the latest arrest will have on reporting in the city.
pending the court's ruling, this could mean #hk journalists in the immediate future will shy away from doing what they have been doing for decades, an effective and fair way of obtaining public info, until a judgement is available https://t.co/O43v0UOqit
— Lok. (@sumlokkei) November 3, 2020
#RTHK chief Leung Ka-wing says the arrest of one of the station's producers has left staff afraid and worried about whether they can carry on reporting news as before, but they won't stop their investigative journalism and will stick to their principles. https://t.co/B9mGYj1OqM pic.twitter.com/VbXsIkzb2j
— RTHK English News (@rthk_enews) November 3, 2020
Choy’s arrest is the latest move by the police to confront those who have sought to investigate and seek accountability for the events of 7.21. Despite the abundance of video evidence identifying many of the attackers, police charged almost nobody in the Yuen Long attack for months, before arresting just four men. A report by the Independent Police Complaints Council, which has limited investigatory powers and no authority to subpoena evidence or summon witnesses, described the attack as a “gang fight… involving both sides” and absolved the police of any wrongdoing.
This September, police shocked many Hong Kongers when they arrested several people who were beaten by the mob, including a pro-democracy lawmaker who was attacked on the train. For The Atlantic in September, Timothy McLaughlin reported on how the police have used the arrests as a way to recast the narrative of what happened that night:
Many Hong Kongers were outraged recently when the police began making arrests over the Yuen Long violence, picking up and charging not the attackers, but those who had been beaten, including a prodemocracy lawmaker left bloodied in the mayhem. Then, more than a year after the incident, officials presented an entirely new narrative of what occurred that night—recasting it as a pitched battle between two evenly matched sides, one of quick action by police in which the victims were actually the instigators.
This new version of events marked the most blatant and audacious attempt yet at sweeping historical revisionism of last year’s protests. Hong Kong authorities appear eager to not just quash the demonstrations and move on, but create an alternate history of events in which prodemocracy protesters are the villains, bringing suffering on everyone else. It is not an uncommon tactic among autocratic regimes, wiping problematic episodes from the historical narrative, presenting the status quo as a moment that was never in doubt. The authorities in Hong Kong are going a step further, rewriting a movement that, although slowed, is very much ongoing, with hundreds arrested at protests on Sunday, when legislative elections were supposed to take place. [Source]
At the end of the RTHK documentary, a Yuen Long shopkeeper whose shop cameras captured the attackers explained why he came forward to share his footage. “The victors are continuously rewriting history,” he said. “And the truth is gradually being forgotten by regular people, or is gradually being eliminated in a thousand and one ways.”