The largest press group in Hong Kong has expressed “utmost regret” after journalists from at least seven local and international media organisations were denied access to cover events celebrating the 25th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule.

China and Hong Kong flags at Lee Tung Avenue in Wan Chai. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) said on Tuesday night that at least 10 journalists from outlets that had been invited to attend the July 1 flag-raising ceremony and the inauguration ceremony of incoming chief executive John Lee were rejected for “security reasons.”

The news outlets affected included Ming Pao, HK01, South China Morning Post, Now News and Agence France-Presse, the press group said. The HKJA said that while media organisations were given the option to send alternative representatives, any new registrants must fulfil the requirement of testing negative for Covid-19 from a PCR test every day between last Sunday and July 1.

Sources familiar with the matter also confirmed with HKFP that Reuters and Bloomberg also had applications turned down.

Sources told Ming Pao on Tuesday that media workers who were rejected included reporters from government-funded broadcaster RTHK and staff members of the government’s Information Services Department (ISD).

Hong Kong Journalists Association Chairman Ronson Chan. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

HKJA chairman Ronson Chan said on Commercial Radio on Wednesday that media organisations saw denials “regardless of their editorial policy.” News outlets that were “courteous” to the authorities were also affected, he said, without naming any.

“It is really perplexing,” he said

The HKJA called the rejections, which came just days ahead of the anniversary on Friday, “last -minute and narrow,” saying some media organisations may not be able to send any journalists to the events.

“The HKJA expresses utmost regret over rigid reporting arrangements made by the authorities for such a major event,” the press group said.

“[C]iting a vague reason for rejection seriously undermines press freedom in Hong Kong. The HKJA urges the authorities to make remedial arrangements and protect the right to report,” it added.

Barriers outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai, where the Handover celebrations are set to be held. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

The denials marked the latest round of media restrictions imposed on July 1 celebrations and the inauguration of the new government, led by Lee.  At least 10 outlets – including HKFP – were earlier denied access on the grounds of Covid-19. The ISD said earlier that the new arrangements were “in view of the latest epidemic situation.”

The HKJA said that invited news outlets were initially told they could send up to 20 journalists. But the ISD later tightened the quota and said only one journalist was allowed per outlet at the inauguration and the flag-raising ceremony, respectively.

Media workers attending the inauguration were also required to undergo quarantine at a designated hotel starting on Wednesday.

The HKJA said press freedom was an “important cornerstone” of One Country, Two Systems. The government’s rejections of journalists may hinder some news outlets from providing live coverage of a historical moment in Hong Kong, it said.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“It not only obstructs journalists from fulfilling their vocation, it also casts a smear on this major event with global attention,” the press group statement read.

An international journalist, who did not wish to be identified owing to their job, told HKFP that the restrictions were unprecedented “and frankly even more draconian and unpredictable than the mainland where international media are usually granted access to major central government events without issue.”

“China wants the world to see Hong Kong’s 25th handover anniversary ceremony and project the narrative that stability has been returned to the city, meanwhile it has effectively banned most international media from covering this important event,” they added.

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On Wednesday, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club Hong Kong said it was “deeply concerned” by reports that the government rejected some journalists’ applications to cover the July 1 events.

The press club said similar official occasions were open to media registration without invitation or vetting, adding that the Handover anniversary and inauguration would mark a “seminal event in the history of Hong Kong” that deserved widespread media coverage.

“The FCCHK views these restrictions – enforced without detailed explanation – as a serious deviation from that stated commitment to press freedom,” the statement read.

Earlier in June, 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.

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

Hong Kong has plummeted down 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.

Additional reporting: Tom Grundy

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.