英文

Editorial : A reporter's crime of accessing public database in new HK

【明報專訊】Bao Choy Yuk-ling, a producer with Radio Television Hong Kong, accessed the public registries to obtain license plate information. She has been found guilty of two counts of "false statements" and fined $6,000 in total. Accessing the public registries is an important tool for journalists to find the truth. Now that Choy has been found guilty of such practice, journalists are worried that the precedent will become the sword of Damocles that greatly restricts investigative journalism and thus undermines the public's right to know. The government should discuss the matter with the journalism industry to strike an appropriate balance between the protection of privacy and accessing the public registries for journalistic use. It should make use of facts to show that freedom of the press has not been tightened in Hong Kong but remains as open as before.

In July last year, a special episode of Hong Kong Connection was broadcast about the 7.21 incident at Yuen Long that had happened in the previous year. It was found that to produce the special episode, the information in question, including the registered addresses of the car plates, was obtained and used to contact the car owners one by one. Choy was thus charged with making false statements. The defense said in the court that, as the vehicle involved in the case had been used to transport weapons to those suspected of attacking bystanders, Choy had accessed the public registries to find out the car involved in the attacks. The defense said that since the car had obviously been used on the road as a criminal tool, the purpose of Choy's search must therefore have had to do with traffic matters, so the statement made by the defendant was true.

Choy's motive was not personal gain. What she did is established practice in the press. That the judge has concluded the case by ordering Choy to pay a fine must have been in consideration of numerous factors. It should be pointed out that it is established journalistic practice to access the registries, cover an incident and report it. In fact, such an established practice has a certain positive effect on the press's quest for truth, its fulfilment of the monitoring role and its promotion of social fairness and justice. After Choy's case, every journalist feels endangered, which is a normal reaction. This is because what they do is no different from what Choy has done. If they carry on, they might be the next Choy.

The authorities have changed how registry searches can be performed. If someone searches for license plate information, the Transport Department will send an email to notify the vehicle owner of information such as the name of the searcher. In the past, a car owner could apply to the Transport Department to obtain the searcher's information in paper. Now a car owner is notified via email by appointment.

In the past, journalists looked for clues by searching the public registries, but that did not ruffle the authorities' feathers. Choy's case might have been triggered by the sensitivity of the 7.21 incident, and the government has seized the opportunity to tighten the arrangement of registry searches. However, the government has recently said that Hong Kong should restart. How can Hong Kong restart if the Hong Kong government cannot free itself from the mindset of the anti-amendment storm? Hong Kong is a society of freedom of information. When journalists search the registries to look for clues and unveil the truth by following the leads, it is a different matter from the malicious doxing of others and the abuse of public information. Hong Kong has entered a new era. But the government should not seek to restrict the operations of the press to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The government should make the effort to shape a new normal and a new balance of interaction with the press.

明報社評2021.04.23:查冊私隱新平衡 政府有責任塑造

香港電台編導蔡玉玲「查冊」索取車牌資料,被控「虛假陳述」兩項罪名成立,共被罰款6000元。「查冊」乃新聞工作者追查事實真相的重要工具,如今蔡被確定犯法,業界擔心有了案例,「查冊」宛如懸在頭上的劍,偵查報道工作將大受掣肘,損害了公眾知情權。政府應該與業界商討,在保護私隱和「查冊」作新聞報道之間,取得恰當平衡,以事實證明,香港新聞自由並未收緊,而是一貫地開放。

去年7月,《鏗鏘集》播出前年元朗7.21事件專題報道,顯示節目取得相關資料後,用於製作專題,包括根據車牌登記地址,逐一接觸車主,蔡因而涉及虛假陳述。辯方在庭上表示,「涉案車輛運輸武器給疑似施襲者,蔡查冊目的在找出涉案車輛,而該車輛明顯在道路上使用,並用作犯罪工具,因此查冊用途必然屬於交通事宜,被告所作陳述屬實」云云。

蔡的動機並非為了私利,而且是新聞界一貫做法,法官判處蔡罰款了案,應是考慮了多方因素的裁決。需要指出的是「查冊、採訪、報道」乃新聞界工作常態,事實上,這個「一貫做法」在新聞界追查事實真相、發揮監察職能,促進社會公平公義方面,起了一定積極作用。蔡案之後,新聞工作者人人自危,是正常反應,因為他們做的與蔡玉玲並無不同,若繼續下去,人人都有可能是下一個。

當局已經調整查冊做法,若有查冊者查找車牌資料,運輸署會發電郵通知車主,包括告知查冊者姓名。原本車主可以向運輸署申請,以紙本方式獲得查冊者資料,現在改以預約方式透過電郵通知車主。

過去,新聞工作者查冊尋找新聞線索,當局並未視作批逆鱗,今次蔡玉玲涉及案件,相信7.21事件敏感成為了催化因素,當局趁機收緊查冊安排,不過,近期當局說香港要重新出發,若不跳出反修例風暴思維,重新出發從何說起?香港是資訊自由社會,新聞工作者查冊尋找線索,順藤摸瓜揭露真相,跟惡意起底、濫用公開資訊,是兩回事,不能相提並論。香港邁入新時代,至於權力當局,則勿謀箝制香港傳媒的操作,須警惕出現「潑出一盆污水,連盆內的嬰兒也一同潑出去」的局面。當局重塑與新聞界互動新常態、新平衡,應是須努力方向。

■Glossary

生字

precedent : an official action or decision that has happened in the past and that is seen as an example or a rule to be followed in a similar situation later

sword of Damocles : if you have a sword of Damocles hanging over you/your head, sth bad seems very likely to happen to you

malicious : having or showing hatred and a desire to harm sb or hurt their feelings

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