Hong Kong’s government watchdog is to launch a “full investigation” into the Information Services Department’s (ISD) refusal to disclose the list of media outlets invited to cover July 1 Handover celebrations following a complaint made by HKFP.

Ombudsman letter to HKFP
The Office of Ombudsman confirmed with HKFP that it will launch a full investigation into the Information Services Department. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

On June 16, citing the Code on Access to Information, HKFP asked ISD to provide a full list of media outlets invited by the ISD to cover July 1 events, which included the inauguration of Chief Executive John Lee and were attended by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

A number of independent newspapers, international media outlets and news wires were effectively barred from attending and providing coverage of the activities, including 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.

The ISD responded on July 6, saying that it was “not in a position” to provide the information” as requested by HKFP, and that doing so could “harm or prejudice Hong Kong’s security.”

After conducting an internal review, the government’s public relations and media department decided to uphold its decision. HKFP filed a complaint to the Ombudsman the following day, on July 27.

Information Services Department (Copy)
A booth of the Information Services Department at Hong Kong Book Fair 2022. File photo: GovHK.

In a letter last Wednesday, the Office of the Ombudsman said it would launch a full investigation into the matter and ask the ISD to respond.

“We will examine all the materials carefully, including ISD’s reply and any other relevant information, and make our observations,” it said.

The office added that it generally takes three to six months to process a complaint.

Media restrictions

According to an ISD spokesperson, the media arrangements for July 1 were adopted “after taking into consideration the latest epidemic situation, security requirements and venue constraints, etc.”

However, there were no such restrictions implemented when Hong Kong’s small-circle leadership poll was held at the same venue two months prior in May.

Xi Jinping
Chinese leader Xi Jinping officiates in Hong Kong on July 1, 2022. Photo: GovHK.

Days ahead of the 25th anniversary of the city’s Handover from Britain to China, journalists from media that had been invited to cover the events were denied access for “security reasons”, including reporters from Ming Pao, HK01, South China Morning Post, Now News and Agence France-Presse, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA).

Three days before the events took place, Ming Pao cited sources as saying that journalists from the government-funded broadcaster RTHK, as well as staff members from ISD itself, had been rejected.

security water barrier July 1, 2022 Handover anniversary mask
July 1, 2022 anniversary of the Handover. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

The HKJA said it “expresses utmost regret” over the rigid media arrangements. “[C]iting a vague reason for rejection seriously undermines press freedom in Hong Kong,” it added.

Heightened security

Hong Kong saw roads, flyovers, footbridges and train stations sealed-off by police, and drones and other small unmanned aircrafts were banned, during Xi’s visit to the city. A total of 53 bus routes either had their terminus relocated or route diverted as well.

The visit marked the first time the Chinese leader had set foot outside of mainland China since the Covid-19 pandemic began more than two years ago.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.