The Hong Kong government barred several government-registered media outlets from covering a National Security Education Day event last Saturday, ignoring emails and evading questions by phone when challenged as to why.

Xia Baolong
Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Xia Baolong attends the opening ceremony of the National Security Education Day on April 15, 2023. Photo: HKMAO.

It comes despite repeated calls from top officials for the media to to tell “a good Hong Kong story.” The city’s journalists’ association says the latest round of media bans lacks transparency and “jeopardise[s] press freedom.”

Several mainstream and digital outlets, including HKFP and a wire service, were inexplicably rejected from attending an opening ceremony at the Convention and Exhibition Centre, officiated by top Chinese official Xia Baolong. Xia was on an inspection visit as the director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council.

media journalism press freedom
Reporters at a press conference. File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

When repeatedly asked why by HKFP over four days, the Information Services Department (ISD) declined to reply in writing and stated in six phone calls that the “enquiry has been forwarded to the Committee for Safeguarding National Security Region for the HKSAR.”

The Committee, which organised the opening ceremony, does not have a media liaison officer, and all media registrations for the event were handled by ISD. When HKFP contacted the police PR team, they referred the enquiry back to the ISD.

It is the second time that media outlets have been barred from an event involving a high-profile mainland Chinese official. Last July, Japan’s Nikkei, Asahi Shimbun, and Kyodo News, Taiwan’s CTV, Getty Images in the US, Europe’s EPA as well as Hong Kong’s InMedia, PSHK, TMHK and HKFP were effectively barred from covering the inauguration of Chief Executive John Lee, which was overseen by China’s leader Xi Jinping. The ISD initially cited Covid-19 and capacity concerns.

When the ISD refused to reveal the media invite list, HKFP complained to the government watchdog, which launched a months-long probe. The Ombudsman agreed with official assertions that revealing the media invite list would aid “terrorists,” but found “inadequacies” in the government’s handling of HKFP’s Code on Access to Information complaint.

‘Jeopardise press freedom’

In a statement on Monday, the Hong Kong Journalists Association said that they “question the legitimacy of the government’s filtering of media outlets, and the lack of transparency in the standard for screening.”

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

“We are also concerned that the government barring media outlets will become a norm and will hinder the flow of information and jeopardise the city’s press freedom. It also does not help the promotion of official information. We urge the administration to explain the reason behind their action as soon as possible, and take appropriate action to protect the journalists’ right to reporting,” it added.

John Lee
Chief Executive John Lee. File Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Top officials – including LeeAlgernon YauPaul ChanFrank Chan and Wang Huning – have repeatedly urged the public and press to tell “good Hong Kong stories,” yet the authorities have continued to hinder key outlets from attending their own events and disseminating the government’s message.

Last June, leader John Lee said: “As long as they do not violate the law, freedom of the press is unlimited.” Earlier last April, he said that press freedom was already in the “pocket” of all Hongkongers so it did not need defending. 

HKFP to raise complaint

As an outlet registered with the Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration, which attends government press events weekly, HKFP has submitted a request under the Code on Access to Information for more details.

The Office of the Ombudsman
The Office of the Ombudsman. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

It will also complain about the obstruction to the Ombudsman.

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

HKFP has reached out to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for comment.

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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.