Irish journalist in Hong Kong denied work visa in ‘attack on press freedom’

Hong Kong Free Press claims Aaron McNicholas is latest victim of Beijing’s attack on press freedom

People hold up copies of the Apple Daily as they protest over press freedom in Hong Kong on August 11th, a day after authorities conducted a search of the newspaper’s headquarters following the arrest of the company’s founder Jimmy Lai under the new national security law. Photograph: Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

People hold up copies of the Apple Daily as they protest over press freedom in Hong Kong on August 11th, a day after authorities conducted a search of the newspaper’s headquarters following the arrest of the company’s founder Jimmy Lai under the new national security law. Photograph: Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

 

A journalist from Clones, Co Monaghan, living in Hong Kong has been denied a work visa at an independent news outlet in the city, with his employers claiming he is the latest victim of Beijing’s attack on press freedom in the financial hub.

Aaron McNicholas has been in Hong Kong since 2015, where he has worked as a reporter for Bloomberg, Storyful, and other news groups.

A journalism graduate from Dublin City University, he is a Cantonese speaker and a widely followed commentator on Hong Kong’s political affairs.

Earlier this year he accepted a new position as editor of Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), but after a six-month delay the city’s immigration department rejected his visa application for the new role without offering any official reason.

The move has evoked further concerns for the former British colony’s media freedoms in light of a recently introduced national security law.

HKFP editor-in-chief Tom Grundy said in a statement that many other news outlets in Hong Kong 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 and fact-based coverage.”

As news broke of his visa denial on Thursday morning, hundreds of messages of support for Mr McNicholas appeared on social media platforms.

Eli Meixler from the Financial Times called the move “appalling”, and said Mr McNicholas’s coverage of Hong Kong had been “exemplary . . . clear-eyed, insightful and vital.”

Writer and lawyer Antony Dapiran said it was “another blow for free press” in Hong Kong, adding Mr McNicholas was “a fine reporter with a long track record in Hong Kong, eminently well-qualified for the job.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia programme co-ordinator Steven Butler said in a statement: “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.”

Unlike on mainland China, the press in the semi-autonomous city has been largely free since the return to Chinese sovereignty under a “one country, two systems” agreement brokered before the 1997 British withdrawal.

But confronted with a burgeoning pro-democracy movement Beijing has recently tightened its grip significantly, most notably by imposing a far-reaching and vaguely-worded national security law on the city at the end of June which critics say is in part designed to stifle dissent and crack down on freedom of expression.

Earlier this month, police used the charge of “foreign collusion” under the new law to arrest media tycoon Jimmy Lai, with 200 officers raiding the editorial offices of his Apple Daily newspaper.

Mr McNicholas’s case is understood to be the first time Hong Kong immigration officials have rejected a journalist’s visa for a local news outlet, but recently the New York Times announced it would be relocating some of its Hong Kong team to Seoul as it was also facing issues securing visas for foreign journalists.