The government watchdog has agreed to investigate HKFP’s complaint against the Information Services Department (ISD) over their handling of a press event which saw several government-registered outlets barred from attendance without explanation.

Ombudsman HKFP complaint investigation report
File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Several media outlets were barred from covering a National Security Education Day event on April 15, but the ISD ignored several emails and evaded questions by phone when challenged as to why. HKFP also submitted a Code on Access to Information request to the ISD last week to obtain more details.

“The Office has decided to conduct an Inquiry into your complaint and ask ISD to respond,” the Ombudsman wrote in a letter to HKFP. “We will examine all the materials carefully, including ISD’s reply and any other relevant information/evidence, and make our observations on the alleged maladministration.”

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.

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

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.

The incident came despite repeated calls from top officials for the media to to tell “a good Hong Kong story.” The city’s journalists’ association, in turn, said the repeated media bans lack transparency and “jeopardise[s] press freedom.”

The probe will take three to six months, the Ombudsman said.

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

When the ISD refused to reveal the media invite list for a press event on July 1 last year, HKFP’s complaint to the Ombudsman was rejected. It 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.

Correction 4/5/2023: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Hong Kong’s National Security Education Day was on April 14. It is actually held on April 15. We regret the error.

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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.