Editorial : Explanation needed for arrest of journalist

【明報專訊】A PRODUCER of the RTHK programme Hong Kong Connection has been arrested presumably because of her investigative report produced with car license information obtained from a publicly accessible database. According to the Road Traffic Ordinance, it is necessary to declare the purpose when enquiring car license information. The government does not list "news reporting" as a declarable purpose. However, in professional journalism, public registry searches are an important tool for finding out the truth. In the past, many investigative reports on important matters of public interest were made possible by public database searches. A normal practice should be viewed as it is. Obtaining car license information from the public database is common investigative procedure employed by journalists. In the past, no journalist was said to have been arrested for "making a false statement about the purpose of obtaining information from the registry". The arrest poses an immediate, direct and consequential challenge to normal investigative journalism. The press is worried that such a precedent will greatly impede investigative journalism and undermine the public's right to know. The police must offer a clear explanation of what is "suspicious" about the producer's action that necessitated the shattering of a long-standing practice.

In July, a Hong Kong Connection special report on the 21 July incident at Yuen Long last year was broadcast. The report mentioned several cars that had been used to transport the men in white at Fung Yau Street North that day. With a search through the car license registry, journalists for the programme were able to track down the owners of the cars and contact them one by one with their registered addresses. The car plates were blurred when they appeared in the episode. Choy Yuk-ling, a producer who had worked on the special report, was arrested yesterday (November 3). It is understood that Choy allegedly violated the Road Traffic Ordinance by using improper information to do the search on car information (thus making a false statement). The police have not made a public disclosure of the specifics of the case, making it impossible to comment on whether anyone really acted inappropriately in the incident.

In Hong Kong, there are more than a hundred types of information in the registries for the public to enquire, ranging from the personal information of company directors to that of public office holders. As for car information, for just $45, citizens can input a car plate number and have access to information about the car and its owner, including his or her name, identity card number and registered address. Such information is made accessible mainly for the sale of cars, as it makes it easier for prospective buyers to acquire information about the car's current owner. But a search through the car information registry is also an important tool for journalists doing investigative reports. From illegal structures in the homes of high-ranking government officials to "vote-rigging" in elections, many important news stories have come to light thanks to searches through the registries. A car plate search is exactly one of the investigative methods commonly employed by journalists. If such a route is no longer available, reporters' quest for truth will be affected.

Now a journalist has been arrested by the police allegedly because of a search through the registries for investigative journalism, shattering the long-standing rules of the game that have been agreed tacitly for years. Inevitably all journalists are now worried that they could invite trouble simply by looking for clues for news reports with a search through the registries. A chilling effect has been created.

The details surrounding the arrest of the Hong Kong Connection producer remain unclear, but the incident has nevertheless had an immediate effect on the routine of journalists. The police have to explain clearly what is unusual or abnormal about the incident that made such an unusual and rare action necessary.

明報社評2020.11.04:記者查冊找真相 警方拘捕須解釋








necessitate : to make sth necessary

quest : a long search for sth

chilling effect : A discouraging or deterring effect on the behaviour of an individual or group, especially the inhibition of the exercise of a constitutional right, such as freedom of speech, through fear of legal action

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