Journalist Bao Choy was on Thursday found guilty of improper searches of an online car licence plate database, during an RTHK investigation aimed at identifying some of the perpetrators of the 2019 Yuen Long attack.
Choy, 37, was convicted of two counts of violating the Road Traffic Ordinance by making false statements as to the purpose of her searches.
Although she could have been jailed for up to six months, the award-winning freelance journalist was instead given fines totalling HK$6,000.
Choy used a tissue to wipe away her tears after the verdict was announced at West Kowloon Magistracy.
She had been trying to discover who owned a car suspected of ferrying weapons to a large gang of men who launched an indiscriminate attack on scores of people in Yuen Long on July 21, 2019.
Choy had ticked a box to declare that the vehicle registration searches she was making were for "other traffic and transport related matters".
Other options available when accessing the database are "legal proceedings" and "sale and purchase of vehicle". Previously, however, journalists had been able to declare that their searches were for "other purposes".
The defence had argued that Choy's licence plate searches were related to traffic and transport matters and therefore she did not make false declarations.
But principal magistrate Ivy Chui said the use of the car owner information obtained had not matched the purpose declared.
Chui added that if a user of the database finds there is no suitable option for them to declare the purpose of their search, they should consider using other means to obtain the information, such as writing to the Transport Department. Making a false declaration is not an acceptable solution, she said.
As part of the mitigation plea, the defendant's lawyer had cited a letter by the head of Chinese University's journalism school, Francis Lee, describing Choy as an outstanding investigative journalist, and urging the court to consider the importance of her reporting on the mob violence and her selfless motives.
When announcing the verdict, however, the magistrate said that whether or not Choy had good motives for her searches was irrelevant.
Choy's research was for RTHK's Hong Kong Connection, with one of two episodes on the Yuen Long attack – "7.21 Who Owns the Truth" – winning this year's Kam Yiu-yu Press Freedom Award.
After the documentaries aired, police were forced to admit that plainclothes officers had been patrolling in Yuen Long shortly before the violence took place. They appeared to take no action despite witnessing groups of men in white T-shirts gathering in the town, some carrying weapons.
Police had already conceded that more than half an hour after the beatings at the station began, officers had still not turned up to rescue people – despite the force being inundated with 999 calls about the attack, which put dozens in hospital.
The police later attempted to present an entirely new version of the events on the night in question, as they arrested some of those wounded on suspicion of "rioting".
Rather than an indiscriminate attack, the force's new description of the violence was "a fight between two equally-matched sides" – with this claim contradicting the police's earlier statement that "some people attacked commuters at the platforms of the Yuen Long MTR Station and train compartments, resulting in multiple injuries".
Police arrested Choy on November 3 last year, carrying out a search of her home in Mei Foo.
They denied allegations that they had launched an attack on the media, dismissing concerns raised by pro-democracy lawmakers, academics and journalist associations that the force was trying to clamp down on the press, and rein in RTHK.
Last updated: 2021-04-22 HKT 16:42