【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.
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