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Senior UK reporter leaves Hong Kong amid visa row

Refusal of work permit raises questions about Beijing's dark hand in stopping city's 'guaranteed' freedoms

Senior UK reporter leaves Hong Kong amid visa row

Victor Mallet, a Financial Times journalist and vice president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) speaks during a luncheon at the FCC in Hong Kong, during which Andy Chan, founder of the Hong Kong National Party, gave a talk on Aug. 14. (Photo by Paul Yeung/AFP)

Published: October 12, 2018 10:10 AM GMT

Updated: October 12, 2018 10:24 AM GMT

A veteran British journalist has left Hong Kong after the government refused to renew his work visa in a move seen as an unprecedented attack on press freedom in the Chinese territory.

Victor Mallet, Asia news editor for The Financial Times, posted a photo of himself at Hong Kong International Airport about 10 am Oct. 12, saying he was leaving for a foreign country.

One comment said "You've marked the tipping point of Hong Kong's destiny."

Most commentators believe the refusal to renew Mallet's work visa was related to his role as vice-president of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club (HKFCC).

The rejection came two months after Chinese and Hong Kong officials criticised the club for hosting a speech by an independence activist Andy Chan in August, igniting a local and international debate about the city's promised freedoms guaranteed by China after the 1997 handover. Mallet, was acting president of the HKFCC at the time and chaired the event.

He was out of Hong Kong when his renewal was refused, but was allowed back into the city on Oct. 7 on a seven-day tourist visa, instead of the six-month visa usually given to British nationals.

Speaking on RTHK radio Oct. 12, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the Immigration Department could not disclose why an individual work visa was not renewed.

Asked if Beijing influenced the decision, Lam said immigration matters fell within the purview of the Hong Kong government.

Pressed on the denial of a visa to a British activist last year when she said the Chinese government had authority "if immigration matters become matters of foreign affairs", Lam refused to be drawn on the two cases.

The HKFCC said the decision had generated grave concerns in Hong Kong and around the world.

"This visa decision suggests that free speech may not be permitted in certain unspecified areas," the FCC said in a statement issued Oct. 12.

"The absence of an official reason or a clear explanation makes the decision appear arbitrary and lacking any basis in Hong Kong law and creates an impossible working environment for the media."

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Oct. 9 the lack of any explanation by Hong Kong for its refusal of Mallet's work meant visa he could only conclude it was politically motivated.

"I urge the Hong Kong authorities to reconsider this decision — confidence in Hong Kong's rights and freedoms is an essential component of its future success," he said.

In a weekend editorial, The Financial Times said the refusal "sends a chilling message to everyone in Hong Kong, highlighting Beijing's tightening grip on the territory and the steady erosion of basic rights that are guaranteed in Hong Kong's laws and international agreements".

Jackie Hung, from the Justice and Peace Commission of Hong Kong Diocese, said the incident has damaged freedom of speech and the press guaranteed by the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong's Basic Law and international human rights conventions.

"Does it mean that other people working in Hong Kong cannot act or talk contrary to the government's stance otherwise, will they be treated in the same way and be deported?" she said. 

Amnesty International said the visa refusal was "political payback" that would have adverse consequences for press freedom in the city.

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