Senior management at Hong Kong’s public broadcaster has been “under immense pressure” in its attempts to help an arrested freelance journalist who co-produced a news programme for the station, a union chief said on Thursday.
Gladys Chiu Sin-yan, chairwoman of RTHK Programme Staff Union, made the remarks at a joint press conference about the arrest attended by the city’s major media unions.
The event coincided with a statement from the US Department of State calling on Beijing to stop its “attempts to crush press freedom”.
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Tuesday’s arrest of RTHK contributor Bao Choy Yuk-ling, 37, over searches of public databases conducted while assembling a documentary about last year’s July 21 Yuen Long mob attack has sparked widespread concern about the state of press freedom in the city. The episode of Hong Kong Connection reviewed CCTV footage and examined the slow response by police officers to the attack.
Choy was arrested on suspicion of making a false declaration when searching for the personal details of car owners in the government database. Under the city’s Road Traffic Ordinance, a person can be fined up to HK$5,000 (US$641) and jailed for as long as six months if he or she knowingly makes a false statement when requesting such information.
Union leader Chiu, who has been assisting the journalist, on Thursday said RTHK management had admitted facing pressure and “administrative problems” in providing legal support to Choy, who was hired under a freelance contract.
“Deputy director of broadcasting Eugene Fung Kin-yip is handling the case. But from our understanding, he has been under immense pressure,” Chiu said, without specifying from where the pressure was coming.
A source familiar with the situation said RTHK management had been “repeatedly reminded” by the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau that freelancers working for the broadcaster had to bear the legal responsibilities arising from their tasks.
Asked by the Post about the commerce bureau’s discussions with RTHK regarding Choy’s case, and whether it was of the mind she should not receive any assistance, a spokesman for the bureau would only say that the daily operations and management of all departments were in accordance with established mechanisms.
We’re not asking for any special privileges … What we’re asking here is to allow journalists to use these records already in the public domain for our reports
Alex Lam, Next Media Staff Union spokesman
Choy had secured a lawyer to represent her in court next week, the insider added, and the staff union would cover part of the legal costs.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association has separately been seeking its own legal advice in hopes of potentially challenging the arrest on the grounds that the Transport Department’s modified application form had breached the city’s Basic Law, which guarantees freedom of the press, according to association chairman Chris Yeung Kin-hing.
The latest version of the form removed options allowing journalists to specify their purpose in searching car plates, and now required applicants to declare they would only use the personal data collected “for activities relating to traffic and transport matters”.
The journalists’ group and other unions at the press conference demanded that authorities reinstate the option and protect the rights of journalists, saying investigative reporting relied heavily on the ability to search for the government’s online platforms for vehicle, land and company ownership information.
“We’re not asking for any special privileges … What we’re asking here is to allow journalists to use these records already in the public domain for our reports,” said Alex Lam Wai-chung, spokesman for the Next Media Staff Union.
Yeung said Hong Kong was experiencing “a swift recession of press freedom” with the latest arrest, which followed police recently limiting access to restricted protest zones to journalists recognised by the government.
The city’s level of press freedom dropped to a record low, according to a report released by the HKJA in May that surveyed 1,022 members of the public and 327 journalists.
Meanwhile, superintendent Yau Nai-keung, of the police’s New Territories North Region, declined to comment on Thursday as to whether there was any conflict of interest in his colleagues arresting Choy, given that they belonged the same unit whose controversial handling of the Yuen Long attacks was at the centre of her report.
Critics, including the RTHK Programme Staff Union and Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting, have raised concerns that the unit, which came under heavy fire for the incident, may have targeted Choy in retaliation for her reporting.
“One can’t help thinking that the arrest operation was related to the investigative report into the July 21 attack,” the RTHK Programme Staff Union said previously.