Editor's Note: The last paragraph of this article has been updated to clarify details of the RSF World Press Freedom Index.
Journalists in Hong Kong were left frustrated and bemused after reporters from several media outlets were banned from covering the city’s biggest political event of the year.
Friday marks 25 years since Hong Kong was handed back to China after more than 150 years of British rule. To mark the occasion, Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting Hong Kong for the first time since 2017.
Since Xi’s last visit, Hong Kong has endured major changes prompted by a wave of anti-government protests in 2019. Beijing subsequently imposed a national security law on the city that has been enforced with a crushing crackdown on all pro-democracy opposition.
Xi, making his first known trip outside mainland China in more than two years amid the COVID-19 pandemic, arrived in the territory Thursday via high-speed train. After meeting local government officials, he delivered a speech praising the city for overcoming serious challenges, an apparent reference to the political unrest in recent years.
Friday’s main event marking the anniversary of the handover was scheduled to include the swearing-in by Xi of incoming Chief Executive John Lee.
The 25th anniversary also marks the halfway point in the “one country, two systems” agreement reached between Britain and China at the time of the handover that calls for the territory to enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047.
In the lead-up to anniversary events, the Hong Kong Journalists Association said at least 10 journalists from several media outlets were denied access to Friday's ceremony, Reuters reported.
Two weeks ago, the press club released a statement that urged the city’s authorities "to be more inclusive by accepting applications from media organizations keen to attend.”
Agence France-Presse reported that 13 local and international journalists were denied accreditation to cover the handover celebrations, including two of their own. A government official cited unspecified "security reasons" for the denials, although a third AFP reporter was later granted accreditation.
One journalist denied accreditation for AFP told VOA anonymously of having to go through three days of COVID-19 PCR tests as part of the media accreditation application. The journalist tested negative but still was denied approval for “security reasons,” despite having covered a Xi visit to Macao in the past.
Keith Richburg, a journalism professor and president of Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, said the media ban was surprising considering the importance of the event.
“I thought this was a big coming-out party, they wanted to show how much Hong Kong has achieved in 25 years of the handover, and they want to inaugurate the chief executive. They have a new patriots-only legislature. Hong Kong is up there with pretty strict control now,” he told VOA in a phone call.
“I’m not sure why they don’t want to let the world know through the international media and the local media — be there in droves, record this and show the world what’s going on,” he added.
Richburg, who reported on the handover in 1997 for The Washington Post, added that previous high-level visits always had heightened security but never media bans, including Xi’s last visit for the inauguration of Carrie Lam.
“When the handover happened in 1997 there were probably over 1,000 media outlets here covering it. Nobody was barred. Now they seem to be picking and choosing outlets, picking and choosing reporters, so it doesn’t make any sense to me.
“I believe everybody was able to cover it [in 2017]. It was an exciting time because it was the first woman chief executive being sworn in, so obviously [the media ban] is all a bit new and odd. It’s kind of an own goal. The story should be about their 25th anniversary; now the story is about the media ban,” he added.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club previously released a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” by the reports of the media ban.
One of those denied accreditation was Iris Tong from VOA’s Mandarin Service, who received an email from Hong Kong’s Information Services Department saying that because of the “latest epidemic situation, security requirements and venue constraints there will be constraints on the number of media organizations that can be invited.”
Tong also received an email outlining how to access the ceremony via streaming services and media workstations away from the official venue.
'Striking a balance'
The Overseas Public Relations team from the Information Services Department told VOA that the government is “striking a balance” between the “need of media work and security requirements,” while declining to comment on which media had applied for accreditation.
The email said the government had “set a very high standard” for major events amid the epidemic,” adding that the government was committed to “safeguarding the freedoms of the press and speech.”
Increased security around the celebrations has not targeted only the city’s media. Pro-democracy activist Avery Ng, who was recently released from prison, told VOA that he was being constantly followed by undercover authorities.
“]The authorities] ‘kindly’ reminded me not to do anything and stay away from sensitive areas for the next few days,” Ng said in an electronic message.
The restrictions on coverage of the anniversary come in the context of a two-year-old crackdown on the city’s media under the national security law.
Stand News, an online news site, decided to close after seven years of operations in December after police officers raided its newsrooms as part of a sedition investigation.
The pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily was forced to close a year ago after several of its executives were charged under the security law. Jimmy Lai, founder of the newspaper, has been in prison since the end of 2020 and faces three charges under the security law. He could face life in prison.
Hong Kong’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index dropped 68 places. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders in 2022 ranks Hong Kong 148 out of 180 countries and territories, on a scale where 1 marks the optimum conditions for media.