The Ombudsman has ruled in favour of the Hong Kong Journalists Association after it complained about the government’s policy of denying digital media outlets access to government press conferences and press releases.

The watchdog called upon the government to review its practice and draw up guidelines as soon as possible. Outlets such as Hong Kong Free Press have long been barred from directly asking questions of officials and obtaining press releases.

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“HKJA welcomes the ruling, demanding that an accreditation system for online-only media be introduced as soon as possible following consultation with the industry,” a statement on Tuesday read.

HKJA Vice-Chairperson Shirley Yam told HKFP that it was important that online outlets are able to report: “When most people are getting their information from online news platforms, it is hard to imagine a government pretending they don’t exist.”

access press conference hong kong
A Hong Kong Free Press journalist is barred from entering a press conference last year.

In January 2014, the government pledged to ensure its press policy would adapt with changes in the media industry, the Ombudsman noted. Yet the six-page judgement stated that no reforms have been made.

‘Think out of the box’

“The new media in Hong Kong and other parts of the world have shown rapid development. These new media are on a par with the traditional media in terms of functionality, and some have even outpaced the latter,”the verdict read. “Information Services Department (ISD) should think out of the box.”

It rejected the government’s argument that inviting digital outlets to press conferences would result in overcrowding and present a security risk. It noted isolated security incidents but said there was little other data to suggest overcrowding.

“It should not, just because of a few isolated incidents, turn down all requests from digital only media across the board,” the report said.

hkja judgement

Last year, the government told HKFP that in the absence of a legally binding registration or licensing regime they were “not in a position to distinguish among a wide range of ‘online media’ organisations.”

The Ombudsman’s report said the government’s guidelines were “vague” and said the industry and the public are given “no clue” about its criteria.

It recommended that the policy be reviewed and access for digital news reporters be relaxed.

HKFP was offered legal aid in May to pursue the matter through judicial review, but dropped the case owing to a lack of funds.

Tom founded Hong Kong Free Press in 2015 and is the editor-in-chief. In addition to editing, he is responsible for managing the newsroom and company - including fundraising, recruitment and overseeing HKFP's web presence and ethical guidelines.

He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He previously led an NGO advocating for domestic worker rights, and has contributed to the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Al-Jazeera and others.