Hong Kong has effectively barred several independent newspapers, international media outlets and news wires from attending the inauguration of incoming leader John Lee, as well as from covering other July 1 events celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Handover.

John Lee. File photo: John Lee campaign.

Among those who did not receive an invite are Japan’s Nikkei, Asahi Shimbun, and Kyodo News, Taiwan’s CTV, Getty Images in the US, as well as Hong Kong’s InMedia, PSHK, TMHK and HKFP. The European Pressphoto Agency also did not receive an invite.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is rumoured to be attending the festivities, with hotels around Wan Chai’s exhibition centre booked out by the government.

The Information Services Department (ISD) privately invited select broadcasters to nominate 20 reporters to attend, whilst other news outlets were able to send ten journalists.

It nevertheless cited the pandemic when barring other outlets – many of whom were welcomed weeks ago for the small-circle election: “[T]he Government has adopted suitable media arrangements after taking into consideration the latest epidemic situation, security requirements and venue constraints, etc.,” a spokesperson told HKFP, despite there being no record of security concerns at similar events involving the press. “These factors pose impact on the number of media organisations being invited to apply for accreditation,” they added.

Chief executive-elect John Lee meets the press after he was selected as leader. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Many of the barred outlets, including HKFP, are registered with the government and regularly attend events such as the Tuesday chief executive press conferences.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association said in a statement on Thursday that it was “deeply concerned” by the move, saying at least 10 outlets were affected: “[HKJA] urges the city’s authorities to be more inclusive by accepting applications from media organisations keen to attend, so that those with a considerable readership can fulfil their duty in keeping the public informed by reporting on Hong Kong’s historic moments.”

It said similar official events were open to the media without private invitations.

Steven Butler of the Committee to Protect Journalists also slammed the move: “Barring some media outlets from freely covering such events severely undercuts the credibility of incoming Chief Executive Lee, who has repeatedly said that Hong Kong enjoys press freedom,” he said.

NGO Reporters Without Borders, meanwhile, tweeted that they were “appalled” by the move and “increasing censorship.”

HKFP has reached out to the Chief Executive’s Office, Lee’s office, and has submitted an Access to Information request to the ISD to acquire the full list of invited media.

Lee: Press freedom ‘unlimited’

The current administration has repeatedly asserted that press freedom is intact in Hong Kong, despite newsroom raids, the arrest of journalists and the closure of four outlets in under a year amid the national security law.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

On Monday, Lee – a former police officer – said: “As long as they do not violate the law, freedom of the press is unlimited.” In April, he said that press freedom was already in the “pocket” of all Hongkongers so it did not need defending. The incoming leader has promised a “fake news” law and a local version of the security law.

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Beijing’s top man in Hong Kong Luo Huining, also speaking on Monday, said that the city’s media needed to drain away the “filth.”

“In a diversified society like Hong Kong, we especially need media that love the country and Hong Kong, which can drain away filth and bring in fresh water, and we need patriotic media people who hold tight to their mission and shoulder their responsibilities,” he said.

Explainer: The decline of Hong Kong’s press freedom under the national security law

Hong Kong has plummeted down in the Reporters Without Borders international press freedom ranking. Over the last year alone it dived 68 places to 148th, sandwiching the international business hub between the Philippines and Turkey.

During a recent trip to Pacific Islands, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi came back largely empty-handed after seeking multilateral security and development pacts. Coverage of the trip was dominated by restrictions Beijing attempted to assert upon local media.

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