Hong Kong’s Ombudsman is to investigate the Immigration Department (ImmD) for refusing a work visa to Hong Kong Free Press for their incoming editor last year.

The watchdog said in a letter last week that it would look into HKFP‘s complaint after the news outlet was denied a visa without reason: “We will examine all the materials carefully, including ImmD’s reply and other relevant information/evidence, and make our observations on the alleged maladministration.”

Last August, the visa for an established journalist was declined following an almost six-month wait. The incident raised concerns for the city’s press freedom in light of the new security law. It came after New York Times journalist Chris Buckley was forced to leave the city after being inexplicably denied a visa last July amid a tit-for-tat dispute between Washington and Beijing.

Local media reported last summer that visas for journalists are now being vetted 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.

The Ombudsman’s investigation is expected to take three to six months.

Immigration Tower. File photo: In-Media via C.C.2.0

At the time of the refusal, 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.”

The Immigration Department told HKFP on Monday evening that it would cooperate with the probe: “The Immigration Department has all along been handling every applications in accordance with the relevant laws and policies. The Department will continue to facilitate any inquiries of the Office of The Ombudsman.”

Tom is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications & New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Quartz, Global Post and others.