The Hong Kong government is facing a barrage of questions and severe criticism over its move to refuse work visa extension for a British journalist, with the decision seen by observers as a serious blow to press freedom and free speech rights in the city.
Among the many parties that expressed concern over the move to deny a visa to Victor Mallet, who works for the Financial Times newspaper, is the British government, which raised the matter over the weekend despite warnings from Beijing against interference in Hong Kong affairs.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office said on Saturday that the United Kingdom is concerned about the rejection of Mallet’s work visa renewal and that Hong Kong needs to offer an explanation.
“Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and its press freedoms are central to its way of life, and must be fully respected,” the statement said, calling on the Hong Kong government to provide “an urgent explanation” on the matter.
A spokesman for the US Consulate General in Hong Kong, meanwhile, described the visa refusal as a “deeply troubling” incident, calling the decision “especially disturbing”, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.
The comments came after Mallet, the FT’s Asia news editor and the first vice-president of Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), was notified by Hong Kong’s Immigration Department last Friday that his application for work visa extension has been rejected.
The department did not give a reason and has said that it does not comment on individual cases, but the move is widely seen as retribution after the FCC allowed a Hong Kong independence activist to speak at a club event in August in defiance of a government warning.
On Aug. 14, Andy Chan Ho-tin, co-founder and convenor of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), gave a speech titled “Hong Kong Nationalism: A Politically Incorrect Guide to Hong Kong under Chinese Rule” at the FCC premises.
Mallet, who was the FCC’s acting president at the time, defended his invitation of Chan and said the club neither endorses nor opposes the diverse views of its speakers and that it merely provides a platform for dissemination of views in the interests of free speech and debate.
Still, the government took umbrage, with Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor saying that it is entirely inappropriate for the FCC to invite Chan to give a speech.
Nearly two months after the controversial FCC event, Mallet’s application to continue working in Hong Kong has been rejected.
Even as Britain and several journalists’ organizations voiced dismay and outrage at the Mallet visa denial, the Hong Kong government has remained silent, saying it will not comment on individual cases.
The Immigration Department would evaluate each visa application in accordance with relevant laws and prevailing policies, and no reasons would normally be given for refusals and the department would not comment specifically on Mallet’s case, RTHK quoted a government spokesman as saying.
A spokesperson for the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong said on Saturday that the central government in Beijing “firmly supports” the Hong Kong’s handling of the matter in accordance with law, and added that no foreign country has the right to interfere on the issue.
Executive Council convenor Bernard Charnwut Chan said although he did not understand why Mallet’s work visa extension was denied, he believes the journalist should not be given any special treatment and that his application should be dealt with as any other such cases.
Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah said he believes the controversy will not affect foreign investors’ confidence in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has always been very open and has always welcomed foreigners to come here for the purposes of commerce, culture, tourism and journalism, Yau said.
Mallet was given only a tourist visa of seven days by Hong Kong authorities when the journalist returned to the city on Sunday, RTHK reported Monday, citing a statement from the FT’s Hong Kong office.
Mallet was “permitted entry into Hong Kong on a seven day visitor visa as he returned from an international trip on October 7. This follows the rejection to renew his routine work visa,” the FT said in the statement.
According to the statement, Immigration Department officials did not provide an explanation for the shortened visitor visa. The paper said it continues to “seek clarification from the Hong Kong authorities about the rejection of [Mallet's] work visa renewal.”
In related news, some local and international media organizations have launched an online signature campaign to show support for Mallet as well as call for defense of Hong Kong’s freedom of press.
Since its launch on Friday, the campaign has drawn about 6,200 English signatures and 7,000 Chinese signatures as of Sunday night.
The FCC, the Hong Kong Journalists Association and Reporters Without Borders, among several other groups, took those signatures along with a petition letter to the government headquarters in Admiralty at 1 pm on Monday and submitted them to a representative of the Office of the Chief Executive.
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