Visas ‘weaponised’: Gov’t denies Hong Kong Free Press editor a work visa, without explanation, after 6-month wait

©Hong Kong Free Press

Hong Kong Free Press has been denied a work visa for an established journalist following an almost 6-month wait. The Immigration Department’s rejection for HKFP’s incoming editor Aaron Mc Nicholas was handed down without any official reason on Tuesday, raising further concerns for the business community and the city’s press freedom in light of the new security law.

Photo: Sarah Thrower/HKFP.

The news comes weeks after New York Times journalist Chris Buckley was forced to leave the city after being denied a visa without reason amid a tit-for-tat dispute between Washington and Beijing. The US newspaper subsequently shifted a third of their local workforce to South Korea.

Editor-in-chief Tom Grundy said that many other news outlets remain in limbo amid unprecedented visa delays, and a pattern had now emerged: “We are a local news outlet and our prospective editor was a journalist originally from Ireland, so this is not another tit-for-tat measure under the US-China trade dispute. It appears we have been targeted under the climate of the new security law and because of our impartial, fact-based coverage.”

He said that neither the applicant, nor HKFP, had been denied a visa before: “Other sectors can expect to be subjected to a similar bureaucratic rigmarole in light of the security law. Companies are already leaving or avoiding the city for this very reason,” Grundy said. “Businesses can be assured that visa issues are now a feature, not a bug. They may decide that Hong Kong is no longer a suitable place to set up a regional headquarters or base.”

Photo: May James/HKFP.

He added that HKFP would press the government to offer reasons for the denial and will consider an appeal and legal challenge.

Work visas ‘weaponised’

A senior lawyer – who has represented a number of media organisations and journalists but did not wish to be named – said the denial of visas for two respected journalists in such a short time was “unprecedented and deeply concerning.”

“This strongly indicates that the Hong Kong authorities, like those in the PRC [People’s Republic of China], have now weaponised work visas as a tool to control the reporting of Hong Kong affairs by international and local media, as well as silence free speech for all those needing a visa,” he said.

“Press freedom in Hong Kong has been under attack since the Victor Mallet case in late 2018. These actual and de-facto denial of visas for journalists since the national security law indicates how far and how fast the authorities are prepared to degrade press freedom in Hong Kong,” he added, referring to visa delays.

Immigration Tower. File photo: In-Media.

In an emailed response to HKFP on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Immigration did not state why the visa was denied: “Hong Kong has always adopted a pragmatic and open policy on the employment of professionals in Hong Kong, allowing those possessing special skills, knowledge or experience of value to and not readily available in Hong Kong to apply to come to work, including journalistic work,” they said. They added that each case was processed in accordance with the law.

‘Against press freedom’

The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia Programme Coordinator Steven Butler told HKFP that the incident undermined the city’s free status: “Denial of a work visa to a thriving local news operation bashes the most basic promise of press freedom given repeatedly by the Hong Kong government. It also severely undermines Hong Kong’s status as an international city and financial centre, which cannot flourish unless journalists are free to do their work.”

Meanwhile, in a statement, Reporters Without Borders’ East Asia chief Cédric Alviani told HKFP that months-long delays were highly unusual: “The Hong Kong government must revert this decision that clearly goes against press freedom, a principle enshrined in the Basic Law.”

Cédric Alviani. Photo: RSF.

“The Hong Kong government must revert this decision that clearly goes against press freedom, a principle enshrined in the Basic Law”, Alviani said adding the the rejection is another sign of the decline in press freedom following the implementation of the security law whereby “the Beijing regime allows themselves to directly intervene on the territory.” He also cited the arrest of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai this month, and the raid on the Apple Daily offices.

6-month delay

News outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and South China Morning Post have also reportedly suffered months-long delays in a process that normally takes a few weeks. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, HKFP knows of visas for professionals in other industries that have been processed within reasonable time-frames.

Local media reported earlier this month that visas for journalists are now being vetting by a new national security unit within the Immigration Department. When asked about the unit last week, Immigration did not answer directly or deny its existence, but a spokesperson said that visas were processed by the Visa and Policies Branch.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Earlier this month, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club said that highly unusual processing delays have “affected journalists of multiple nationalities and in some cases have prevented journalists from working.” It has yet to receive a response to its latest letter demanding an explanation.

Jodi Schneider, president of the press club, told HKFP on Wednesday that they were closely following the issue: “This is obviously a key concern for the media working in Hong Kong. It is a press freedom issue.”