The immigration department has set up a new national security unit to handle sensitive visa applications, such as those from foreign media and Taiwanese organizations.
The department has never publicized such a unit in the past, but it was reported that this section was responsible for delays in visa renewals for several foreign media organisations, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
It was also reported that the department delayed visa renewals for technical reasons.
For example, if an editor does not mention that reporting is part of the job duties in the first visa application, his or her visa renewal could be delayed or rejected if the editor was found to be reporting on a protest.
The department will also look at mandatory provident fund contribution payroll records to determine whether a journalist is a long-term worker in Hong Kong.
A source confirmed the new unit's existence to The Standard.
It is understood the visa applications of foreign journalists have to go through the new national security unit, which was established at the end of June and is led by a chief immigration officer in the Quality Migrants and Mainland Residents Section.
But there is no information about this chief immigration officer on the department's organizational chart, and its office is not on the same floor as the quality migrants and mainland residents' section, which is on the sixth floor of Immigration Tower in Wan Chai.
This came after media groups were dragged into Sino-US tensions when the US designated nine Chinese state-run media outlets, including Xinhua News Agency, China Central Television and People's Daily as foreign missions and imposed staff visa quotas.
In retaliation, Beijing expelled US reporters and withdrew the press credentials of American journalists at three US newspapers including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
On Thursday, the Foreign Correspondents' Club issued a statement opposing the use of journalists' visas as a weapon in international disputes.
It called on the US government to lift restrictions on Chinese media working in America and urged Beijing to "refrain from retribution" by targeting US media staff working in Hong Kong.
The FCC said that the SAR's delay in issuing new or renewed visas to foreign journalists is "highly unusual," as Hong Kong has "historically robust press protections."
It noted that "the delays have affected journalists of multiple nationalities and, in some cases, prevented journalists from working. It urged authorities to clarify the impact of the new national security law on the media, and guarantee reporters will be free to work "without intimidation or obstruction."