Brits had their own take on press freedom

  • The refusal of the Hong Kong government to grant a work visa to journalist Victor Mallet is not the watershed moment many people believe it to be
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 6:21pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 10:22pm

While taking part recently in a current affairs programme on television in Taiwan, veteran Taiwanese journalist and commentator Chang Yu-hua related an unpleasant incident back in 1991 when he was expelled from Hong Kong by the colonial government.

I was naturally intrigued, since many critical readers of my column have blasted me for failing to appreciate how freedom-loving the British colonists were and that I didn’t understand what a watershed moment it was for the Hong Kong government to refuse to renew the work visa of a foreign correspondent from Britain.

Naturally, the colonial government would never do such dastardly things. Interestingly, a writer at the online Asia Sentinel has made a comparison between the refusal to renew the visa of Financial Times Asia news editor Victor Mallet and the murder of journalists elsewhere in the world.

But I digress. Chang came from Taipei in 1991 to cover the transition period of Hong Kong, specifically the drafting of the Basic Law and the so-called through train arrangement for legislators to retain their seats after 1997.

Perhaps unwisely, he spoke at a public function at which he discussed the legacies of destruction and conflict British imperialists left behind in the Middle East, and the bloody break-up of the British Raj into modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar (then Burma) and Sri Lanka (previously Ceylon), and the problem of the Rohingya.

Journalist Victor Mallet made himself unwelcome in Hong Kong

“I also talked about Malaysia and Singapore, and didn’t even have time to get to Hong Kong,” he said on TV while relating the incident in 1991.

The next day, the political branch gave Chang 48 hours to leave Hong Kong. He asked what he had done wrong. He was told he had talked about the history of the Middle East and India. “I can’t talk about history?” he asked. “But you talked about it in terms of politics,” an officer told him.

Like some visiting foreign journalists at the time, Chang had to sign a declaration that he would not engage in any “political activities” while in the city.

Writing in another publication, my fellow Post commentator Keith Richburg recalled wistfully that back in 1995: “When I asked about the process for getting a local press card, [the government information director] gave me a bemused smile and told me there was no such thing. ‘We have freedom of the press here,’” he said.

Of course it was different when you worked for The Washington Post or the BBC.