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Irish journalist: I spent the last five years covering Hong Kong, but then my visa was declined

Irish journalist Aaron Mc Nicholas has returned from the territory and here, he documents the daily challenges faced by journalists and other activists in a politically tense Hong Kong.

Aaron Mc Nicholas

TODAY, 1 OCTOBER is a public holiday in Hong Kong, as it is throughout China, ostensibly to celebrate the country’s National Day.

An occasion that is traditionally marked with a showcase fireworks display has been tempered this year by the Covid-19 pandemic, meaning that no mass gathering is allowed to take place.

It’s also the first National Day in five years that I will not be spending in Hong Kong.

After living and working as a journalist in the city since 2015, I left earlier this week following the Hong Kong government’s decision to decline my visa renewal application.

I am in no better position than any outside observer to speculate why this decision was made since no reason is typically given for such denials. It would also be audacious of me to compare my own circumstances to those of foreign correspondents who face the more challenging conditions that prevail in neighbouring mainland China.

In the past month, we’ve read accounts from Australian correspondents Bill Birtles and Michael Smith, who were forced to shelter at their country’s diplomatic premises while consular officials negotiated their safe exit from China.

Press freedom restricted

My own story is not a dramatic tale of escape. It was simply an administrative decision which meant I had to leave the city I had called home for five years. Yet the Hong Kong Immigration Department’s practice of not stating the reason for such decisions allows speculation to run wild, at a time when the city’s media freedoms are coming under increasing scrutiny with the recent passage of the national security law.

The law, which came into effect in June this year, calls on China’s representative offices in the city to work together with Hong Kong’s local government “to strengthen the management of and services for” foreign news organisations, but offers no specifics on what that means in practice.

In August, a police investigation into the foreign connections of media tycoon Jimmy Lai led to the dramatic images of hundreds of police officers conducting a search of a local newsroom.

Apple Daily, the newspaper whose offices were searched, is known for its vocal pro-opposition stance, which frequently puts it in confrontation with the local government.

New media, changing landscape

The changing environment for Hong Kong’s journalists covers more than just the staff from one partisan publication.

The sometimes-violent protests that rocked Hong Kong in the second half of 2019 were one of the biggest global news stories of the year, and attracted reporters from major news organisations worldwide, as well as citizen journalists with little more than a Facebook page on which to publish content.

They frequently converged in their dozens at scenes of conflict between police and protesters, leading Hong Kong’s police force to complain about “fake reporters” obstructing their work.

This led to a change of policy last month when the police force decided that, for the purposes of providing assistance at public events or issuing invitations to press conferences, it would only recognise journalists working for media organisations registered with the Hong Kong government, as well as renowned non-local organisations.

The full impact of the change, which effectively withdraws recognition of press passes issued by Hong Kong’s local journalist trade unions, remains unclear, but it is thought to create more risks for freelancers and students.

It has even led to fears that journalists who lack such recognition will be treated no differently to protesters by police officers on the ground. Public assurances from the Police Commissioner that the force respects press freedom will be tested at future events.

Major obstacles ahead

Elsewhere across Hong Kong’s media landscape, public concern remains at a high point. Irish people have always had a wide range of opinions about RTÉ’s editorial decisions, but it is generally accepted that such decisions are made without external pressure.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, RTHK, earned a rebuke from a government minister in April over a current affairs programme in which a journalist asked a World Health Organization official about Taiwan’s future participation in the global health body.

The minister accused RTHK of breaching the principle of recognising Taiwan as a province of China, though the programme made no direct reference to Taiwan’s political status.

RTHK is now being subjected to a government-led review of its management systems, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2020. How the results of that review will affect RTHK’s editorial practices in the future will be anxiously watched by Hong Kong’s media community.

Hong Kong is a modern, first-world destination, and conditions for journalists in the city are not comparable to those that prevail in some of the world’s most troubled war zones and most controlled autocracies.

Yet Hong Kong’s placement on the RSF Press Freedom Index has fallen from #18 in 2002, when the 180-country index was first published, to #80 in 2020. The most recent ranking was published before the passage of the national security law, the full impact of which has only begun to be felt.

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Already it has led to the arrests of protesters carrying signs with slogans deemed to be separatist, showing that published words are not beyond the reach of the new law. The question for Hong Kong’s journalists must surely be whether their published words will make them the next target.

Aaron Mc Nicholas is an Irish journalist who was based in Hong Kong from 2015 until 2020. He worked for Storyful news agency as well as Bloomberg during his time in the city and occasionally appears on RTÉ and BBC programmes providing news updates on Hong Kong. Twitter: @aaronMCN

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