This week a journalist in Hong Kong is on trial, accused of violating the Road Traffic Ordinance; she was arrested for accessing a public database, in a case that’s raising questions not about traffic laws but the city’s freedom of press.  

Bao Choy, a veteran investigative reporter, was arrested last year, shortly after the broadcast of her high-profile documentary about a key episode in the city’s widespread anti-government protests the previous year: the mob attack at the Yuen Long train station. On the night of July 21, 2019, a group of white-clad men attacked pro-democracy activists and bystanders with rods and sticks, injuring dozens. Despite hundreds of emergency calls made during the assault, the police took nearly 40 minutes to respond, arriving just after the mob had left the station, leading some pro-democracy supporters to accuse the authorities of colluding with the triad gangs behind the attack.

For her documentary, “Hong Kong Connection: 7.21 Who Owns the Truth,” Choy examined CCTV footage and conducted searches on the city’s vehicle registration database in an attempt to uncover the identities of the attackers and to identify plainclothes police officers who might have been in the area before the attack.

Police alleged that Choy made a false statement in obtaining license information from an online vehicle registration database, an offense under the Road Traffic Ordinance that could be punishable by up to six months in prison. The database allows users to get the name and address of a car’s owner by typing in a vehicle registration plate. However, police said Hong Kong laws allow people to search the database for only “transport-related matters” and accused Choy of using the data outside the scope of the permission. Choy has pleaded not guilty.

Investigative reporters have used government databases in their work for decades, particularly the company registry and land registry, which show who owns companies and assets in the city. Those have often been crucial in uncovering scandals. Law firms and businesses often have to check information from the databases as part of their due diligence investigations, and NGOs can obtain data in their areas of interests. David Webb, an activist investor, has used the databases extensively to create a website that provides transparency to the business affiliations of public figures.

“I fear that this case would set a precedent that would allow other public document registries or other tools of journalism to slowly disappear,” said Sharron Fast, a journalism and law professor at the University of Hong Kong. “Law firms and civil society groups often look into these databases for important information. … If this type of information is starting to be hidden, it should cause alarm to the business community.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has dismissed concerns that Choy’s prosecution was aimed at silencing investigative journalism. “Press freedom is protected by the Basic Law, and we will not suppress press freedom,” she said, referring to Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. “But media workers, of course, have to abide by the law.”

The law, however, increasingly penalizes journalists in Hong Kong. The city’s most famous pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, was raided last August after authorities arrested its outspoken founder, Jimmy Lai, under a loosely worded national security law that potentially criminalizes criticism of the Chinese government, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. 

Earlier this month, a top Chinese official said only “patriots” should be allowed to run media companies in Hong Kong. The city’s public broadcaster RTHK, for which Choy produced the documentary, has repeatedly come under attack from the government over its independent coverage of the 2019 protests. Its newly appointed director — a government bureaucrat with no journalism experience — axed a number of political programs just before they were scheduled to air.

“I find [these databases] particularly crucial in Hong Kong, because the government and public institutions generally are not transparent in their information and data.”

Fast said that, while Choy may argue that her information request was done in the public’s interest, she is concerned that this trial could set a precedent for authorities to further limit the access of public information. The city has no freedom of information act, and government agencies are not legally required to archive information. This makes the few public resources that are available to researchers all the more vital.

“I find [these databases] particularly crucial in Hong Kong, because the government and public institutions generally are not transparent in their information and data,” said Selina Cheng, an investigative journalist working for the Hong Kong Free Press, an independent media organization.

A number of pro-Beijing media outlets have also used the vehicle registration database in their reports without facing prosecution, raising concerns that the law is being used selectively against critics of the government. Ta Kung Pao, a newspaper controlled by Beijing’s office in Hong Kong, published the full name of a driver from the database in a report last August. 

Since Choy’s arrest, Hong Kong authorities have already moved to further tighten rules concerning the use of public databases. Since January, the government started notifying vehicle owners when a search is made at the vehicle registration database, raising fears among media groups that it could tip off subjects in an investigative report. The Companies Registry and Land Registry also said they are reviewing existing arrangements to protect the rights of those being searched.

As Hong Kong’s press waits to see how Choy’s case will pan out, Cheng said the arrest hasn’t changed the way she works. “I don’t think we should do anything different than what we have already been doing,” she said. “If there are parties trying to look for ways to intimidate us, there are a million ways for them to do so. So we will just focus on our work and do what we can within the circumstances.”