The Backstory: Reconstructing the route, step by step

How an investigation by FactWire raised important questions about the alleged kidnapping of democracy activist Howard Lam

Society

Last Friday, Democratic Party member Howard Lam Tsz-kin claimed he was abducted on one of the busiest streets in Hong Kong by some Putonghua-speaking men, and was subsequently detained and beaten in the countryside.

With the potential implications of cross-border law enforcement by Mainland officials and public interest in mind, FactWire decided to pursue our investigation last Friday. Until this Monday, we have released seven clips that captured Lam and a masked man, showing the masked man leaving Portland Street, where Lam professes to be abducted and forced into a car, on the day of the alleged kidnapping. Yet, questions have been raised by some members of the public, with some questioning how we managed to acquire the CCTV footage, while others speculating that our sources intentionally leaked the information to coincide with police action. We therefore would like to reveal our investigation process in the hope of relieving public concern.

At around 11pm on August 11, the Democratic Party called an emergency press conference, claiming that one of its members was allegedly kidnapped by Mainland officials. As Lam showed his stapled thighs and told reporters of his ordeal, the incident was reminiscent of the Causeway Bay Books disappearances a year and a half ago, when the public was only informed of the event more than a week later. While details regarding Lee Bo’s abduction remains a mystery to date, we decided to give it a shot and collect as much evidence as we could this time around.

Get It Fast, But Get It Right

In the press conference, Lam alleged that the event happened around 4pm on a section of Portland Street between Pitt Street and Hamilton Street, but he was unable to confirm the exact time and location where he was taken away. As the victim had not reported to police yet, it meant that the public were unaware of what might have happened and would be less wary of the media.  Spotting a chance for first-hand investigation, FactWire sent a reporter to the scene immediately, who was later supported by two other colleagues.

The first reporter arrived at around 12pm. Oblivious of the event, many shop owners were concerned about the gravity of the allegation and were willing to look into the CCTV footage with our reporters. In our initial investigation, we acquired three clips from three shop owners that were recorded from 3 to 6pm. Our reporters watched two of them at the scene and sent the rest to the investigative team to divide up the work, but Lam was nowhere to be seen, let alone the happening of the alleged abduction.

There could be two possibilities. First, the footage is blurred and deformed, which may hinder our judgment, so our reporters had to cross-check the clips together. Second, the incident may have happened in an area beyond our initial search parameters, so we had to collect footage from more CCTV cameras to get closer to the truth.

Spotting Lam was like finding a needle in a haystack. To increase the odds, FactWire also approached the Democratic Party for more details that would aid the investigation, including Lam’s outfit, whether he was holding anything, his arrival time in Yau Ma Tei (whether he had any receipts that can indicate the exact time), the side of the pavement he walked on, etc. At that time information we had was scant, except for him walking along the same side of road where the football store is located.

Since we could not spot Lam in a footage acquired from the noodle store, we made a bold assumption that Lam was kidnapped within 50 metres between the restaurant and football store. A restaurant in this section of the street has installed CCTV cameras that monitor both sides of the pavement. The restaurant was busy preparing for lunch hours, so the person-in-charge told FactWire to come back at 5pm.

Rejected But Not Dejected

Around 4pm, police arrived at the scene to collect evidence. The streets were swarmed by journalists and police officers, rendering the situation unfavourable for us to continue our investigation. We therefore halt our work.

As the commotion died down about an hour later, we resumed our operation on the ground. Our reporters went back to some the shops we had previously approached, including the restaurant that promised to provide their CCTV footage, only to be firmly rejected by shop owners who were then warned by police not to leak any clips to the media. While we were baffled as to on what ground the order was based, our investigation was further hampered by dinner hours. FactWire’s investigation was again adjourned to avoid causing inconvenience to the restaurants.

On one hand, FactWire tried to gather CCTV footage as evidence to reconstruct the event. On the other, reporters looked for witnesses and approached the people on Portland Street, including pedestrians, shopkeepers, workers, the homeless and sex workers, to enquire whether they witnessed someone being abducted, any fights or cries for help on August 10, but to no avail.

The restaurants on Portland Street were open until late night, and were not as busy as during tea time. FactWire went back to the scene at 11pm and seized the opportunity to chat with owners or persons-in-charges. Our reporters introduced themselves, told them about the story and reasons for collecting the footage, and explained that police has no authority to prevent citizens from publicizing the footage. The persuasion appeared to have no use, and reporters again returned empty-handed.

Breakthrough After Days and Nights of Persuasion

FactWire set off at noon on the next day to talk to the shop owners. While some of them appeared annoyed, others softened up. After the busy lunch hours, Our reporters approached our target restaurants during tea time and chatted with the staff and owners while dining there. The staff got used to their presence and no longer tried to send them away. Until late that night, our reporters met the shop owners again. This time, one of the owners was convinced and passed FactWire the key footage – the first footage that captured Lam leaving the football store where he bought the football shirt.

It was around 2am by the time FactWire acquired this footage, but our reporters began sifting through them right away nevertheless. Next morning, we made our first breakthrough as we found Lam appearing outside of the football store at 5:41pm, an hour later than his stated time.

With Lam’s time of appearance in mind, some reporters started reviewing the footage, while others continued to collect footage from target shops. On Sunday night, FactWire gathered a total of seven pieces of footage from five shops and, equally shocked as the public, we discovered something groundbreaking.

Verifying With Extra Care

Around 40 seconds after Lam left the football store, a CCTV camera at a noodle shop 50 metres away captured a man in shorts, putting on a surgical mask and his left hand through the left strap of his backpack. As Lam walks closer to the camera, the footage shows that he has already put on sunglasses and a cap.

The location where Lam stopped was the only area on the street that is not covered by CCTV cameras. FactWire asked people in a park nearby what might have happened at the scene, yet no one had witnessed Lam’s abduction or heard any call for help.

A footage obtained in a shop near Pitt Street shows the man crossing Portland Street to the opposite pavement near the junction. Following Lam’s trail, FactWire gathered two more clips from another restaurant nearby, revealing that the man went back towards the direction of Hamilton Street.

At this stage, we are careful in verifying our findings. If the masked man was indeed Lam, the footage obtained would contradict his own version of events in his alleged kidnapping by Chinese agents as said during the press conference. As the face of the man was completely covered, FactWire repeatedly cross-checked the footage and confirmed the actual time of each CCTV footage according to the Hong Kong Standard Time. We also checked whether the pedestrians in the vicinity of the man were the same people. Upon inspecting the outfit, behaviour and posture of the man, FactWire took note of his height, build, walking speed, and the fact that he was wearing a black T-shirt, dark blue shorts, white-rimmed black trainers, dark-coloured watch on his left hand, carrying a dark-coloured backpack with glossy dark backpack shoulder straps, and his feet were pointing inwards as he walks. The masked man resembles Lam in previous footage. 

With the footage in hand, some questions remained unanswered, including the time Lam went to a restroom nearby on the day he took the football shirt. Would Lam have been heading towards the restroom in the footage shown? Also, Lam stated that he was abducted on Portland street. The footage depicts the masked man heading towards the direction of Hamilton Street while on Portland Street, so it would not contradict his statements if he was abducted on the way.

To solve these two mysteries, FactWire sent a team of reporters to the radio station where Lam would have finished an interview, to ask him whether he left the football store temporarily for the restroom, as well as the route he took as he headed from Portland Street to the MTR station. At the same time, another team went back to the scene to collect more footage along Lam’s route in the hope of finding where he went afterwards.

Unfazed By Our Discovery

At the radio station, Lam confirmed with reporters that he never left the store that day, and stressed that he was abducted on his way to the MTR station from the football store. Lam’s statement was inconsistent with the route FactWire put together from multiple CCTV footage. On the other hand, the other team acquired new footage from another restaurant that shows the masked man turning right into Hamilton Street and heading towards the direction of Nathan Road upon reaching the corner of Portland Street and Hamilton Street. 

At this point, we believed we had had enough information and evidence to report our findings to the public. We therefore arranged for reporters to approach for his response. Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting revealed in the radio interview that he would be having dinner with Lam but he did not mention the venue. FactWire began waiting for Lam outside his apartment in Ma On Shan since 11am, in the hope of catching him if he returned in the afternoon or after dinner. Lam was nowhere to be seen until night time.

Then, around 7:30pm, Lam Cheuk-ting and a friend appeared outside Lam’s apartment. Believing that the dinner would be held at Lam’s apartment, FactWire went up and pressed the doorbell. Upon answering the door and recognizing the reporters at the radio station, Lam refused to be interviewed. He still declined the interview when our reporters told him about the CCTV cameras that captured the departure of a masked man who resembled him from Portland Street. 

Our reporters then spoke to Lam Cheuk-ting, saying that they knew he was inside Lam’s apartment. The lawmaker immediately came out, and requested to be interviewed after watching the CCTV footage. Lam Cheuk-ting completed a 20-minute interview after watching the clip, and our reporters then explained to him the importance of getting Lam’s response before releasing the story and the grave amount of public interest involved. The lawmaker then returned to the apartment and came out about 20 minutes later, stating that Lam promised to be interviewed before he left.

Lam appeared five minutes later, and insisted in the interview that he was not the man with the surgical mask in the footage. He described it as “bizarre” and that someone wants to put him into trouble.

We hope the detailed account of our investigative process would relieve public concerns about our report. We would like to reiterate the grave public interest involved:  If what Lam said was true, it would imply a cross-border crime; and if Lam was not abducted, it would imply that someone had deliberately misled the public. FactWire is always committed to carrying out our duty as journalists to uncover as much evidence as we could to reveal the truth. While we might not be able to provide an answer to every question, we did not hesitate to mobilize our whole team to work on the investigation day and night.

FactWire always uphold the journalistic value of independence when conducting investigations. The CCTV footage mentioned in the report was acquired first-hand by reporters who went door-to-door and contacted each shop owner in person. We never contacted any law enforcement authorities in the process.  We were careful in verifying the footage and details to ensure accurate findings, and we have obtained responses from the relevant persons involved for a balanced report.

We understand that the report may not be able to solve all the mysteries in the incident. Criticisms and suggestions from readers and the public are our biggest source of motivation for improvement, and we will continue to strive for the best in our quest for the truth, and never but the truth.


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