Journalist visa refusal seen as body blow for Hong Kong press freedom

FT editor’s visa ban linked to talk he hosted in August with independence activist

Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalist Association, with Foreign Correspondents’ Club president Florence de Changy  outside government headquarters in Hong Kong on Monday. They handed over petitions calling for an explanation of its visa rejection of Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalist Association, with Foreign Correspondents’ Club president Florence de Changy outside government headquarters in Hong Kong on Monday. They handed over petitions calling for an explanation of its visa rejection of Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

 

When Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet flew home to Hong Kong this week, he was given seven days to pack his things and quit the territory. Days earlier, immigration authorities decided not to extend his journalist work visa, apparently over a talk Mallet chaired in August with independence activist Andy Chan.

The unprecedented step has sent shockwaves through Hong Kong. Both British and US consulates have expressed their concern, while journalist representative bodies, lawyers’ associations, overseas chambers of commerce and rights groups have all said the move is a body blow to freedom of the press.

Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 with laws that allow a high degree of autonomy, including press freedom, but there are growing signs Beijing is imposing its authority on the former British colony, long hailed as the poster child of freewheeling capitalism.

In August, as vice-president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Mallet hosted a talk by Chan, leader of the Hong Kong National Party, which has called for the city’s secession from China and was banned by the Hong Kong authorities last month. Both city authorities and the Beijing government saw the FCC event as an “external attack” and pro-Beijing activists protested.

Facing journalists on Tuesday, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam conceded she had “noticed there has been some talk on the street”.

Lam said to link the refusal to renew Mallet’s visa to the Chan case was “pure speculation” before she then appeared to do just that when she said the government “will not tolerate any advocacy of Hong Kong independence and things that harm national security, territorial integrity and developmental interests”. Lam insisted freedom of expression and reporting were “still core values”.

The Chinese government has given its “firm backing” to the decision by the Hong Kong authorities, saying “no foreign government has any right to interfere”.

In an editorial this week, the nationalist mainland Chinese paper Global Times insisted there was no link between Mallet’s visa refusal and free speech.

“It’s clear that hosting Chan demonstrates a sense of political provocation that goes far beyond the scope of freedom of speech,” it said. “Without Mallet, Hong Kong won’t have any less freedom of speech. By contrast, Mallet’s action damaged China’s national security and undermined freedom of expression . . . Hong Kong will get better without Mallet.”

Legal cases

Human rights groups see in the visa rejection a sign of tighter controls on Hong Kong, including a series of legal cases brought against pro-democracy legislators and organisers of the Umbrella movement which staged large-scale anti-government protests in 2014.

“The visa rejection indicates a quickening downward spiral for human rights in Hong Kong: that the Hong Kong government is now following Beijing’s leads in acting aggressively towards those whose views the authorities dislike,” Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Irish Times.

The human rights aspect of defending press freedom is unlikely to cause too much concern among the ruling elite in Hong Kong, and certainly not in Beijing, but any threat to Hong Kong’s pre-eminence as a place to do business could be taken more seriously.

In its statement, the US chamber of commerce said any attempts to curtail press freedom might harm Hong Kong’s competitiveness as a leading financial and trading centre and sends a “worrying signal”.

“Without a free press, capital markets cannot properly function, and business and trade cannot be reliably conducted,” said AmCham president Tara Joseph.

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