Hong Kong (CNN Business)An Irish journalist has been denied a work visa for Hong Kong, stoking fears of a clampdown on press freedoms following the imposition of a national security law by Beijing.
According to the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), Aaron Mc Nicholas, a journalist formerly with Storyful and Bloomberg who has worked in the city since 2015, was denied a visa after an almost six-month wait “without any official reason.” Immigration authorities did not respond to an emailed request for comment. The department could not be reached by phone Thursday as its offices are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In the past, the department hasn’t commented on visa issues, including in 2018, when Financial Times’ Asia news editor Victor Mallet was denied a visa extension. At the time, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said, “The Immigration Department will not disclose the individual circumstances of the case or the considerations of his decision.”Numerous media outlets have experienced significant delays in acquiring or renewing visas in recent months. While the coronavirus pandemic has caused an understandable slowdown in the processing of work permits, with many government services experiencing disruption, the lack of transparency and uncertainty have led to concern among journalists in the city that it could also be linked to the new security law, which came into force on June 30. Read MoreThe law, which criminalized secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces, also calls on the local government to exercise greater “supervision and regulation” of the media.It is unclear if the decision to deny Mc Nicholas a visa is related to his work, the national security law, or any other political considerations. But the apparent lack of immediate transparency in the process for his prospective employer — coming in a climate of already heightened concerns over press freedom in Hong Kong — has created space for such interpretations.In July, the New York Times was denied a visa for veteran China reporter Chris Buckley. An Australian, Buckley had been based in Beijing until May, when the government didn’t renew his journalist visa, leading him to relocate to Hong Kong. Then too, immigration authorities did not comment on the reason for Buckley’s refusal.
A reporter holds a helmet emblazoned with the logo of Hong Kong Free Press, an English language news outlet founded in 2015. Founded in 2015 in the wake of the city’s pro-democracy protests known locally as the Umbrella Movement, HKFP is an English-language outlet funded by reader donations. It focuses on coverage of the city’s protest movement and politics. While the majority of employees listed on HKFP’s website are Hong Kong nationals or permanent residents who do not require a visa, the outlet has been granted a visa for a foreign employee in the past.It is unclear from guidelines on the Immigration Department’s website what could bar it from hiring another foreigner now. Mc Nicholas was known for his live coverage of last year’s anti-government protest movement, during which he covered multiple clashes between riot police and demonstrators. Under immigration rules, Mc Nicholas would have been eligible for permanent residency next year. His visa refusal came as police arrested 16 people in relation to last year’s protests on Wednesday, including two lawmakers. In a press release, HFKP quoted a response from the immigration department, which “did not state why the visa was denied but said the city has an open policy on employing skilled overseas professionals.” Michael Vidler, a lawyer representing HKFP, said no reasons were given by immigration officials for the decision. He added that the application should have been straightforward, given Mc Nicholas had already been approved to work in Hong Kong and was only applying to transfer that permit to another employer. “I can’t see any problems which meant it should have been refused,” Vidler said. Article 9 of the security law states the Hong Kong government “shall take necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organizations, the media, and the internet.” Lam has previously asserted that the national security law won’t affect freedom of speech, enshrined in the city’s 1997 de facto constitution called the Basic Law.Earlier this month, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong issued an open letter to the city’s immigration authorities expressing concern about reports a national security unit was overseeing journalist visas. In response to the FCC, a spokesman for the immigration department said officials “will handle each application in accordance with the laws and immigration policies.”Vidler said HKFP was pressing the government for more information and would consider an appeal and legal challenge to the decision not to grant Mc Nicholas a visa. In a statement, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler said “denial of a work visa to a thriving local news operation bashes the most basic promise of press freedom given repeatedly by the Hong Kong government. It also severely undermines Hong Kong’s status as an international city and financial center, which cannot flourish unless journalists are free to do their work.”
Earlier this month, hundreds of police officers raided the newsroom of Apple Daily, a popular pro-democracy tabloid owned by business tycoon Jimmy Lai. Lai was arrested on charges of colluding with foreign countries, a crime under the new law. He told CNN that the arrest was a “symbolic exercise” by local authorities to demonstrate the security law has “teeth.”