An overseas rights group has called on the Hong Kong government to explain why a cutting-edge Chinese journalist has not been issued with a visa to work in the former British colony.
The delay comes after a decision by the territory's Special Administrative Region (SAR) government not to renew the contracts of two popular radio talk-show hosts, sparking fears of further pressure on media freedom in the territory since its 1997 return to Chinese rule.
Paris-based press-freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang to explain the delay in processing a work visa for Zhang Ping, a former deputy editor of the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend.
"For the past five months he has been unable to take up his post in Hong Kong as editor of the online magazine Sun Affairs," the group said in an open letter to Tsang this week.
Zhang, who is also known by his pen-name Chang Ping, was to have taken up his post at the magazine, which is owned by Sun TV, in July.
"Zhang Ping has faced unexplained silence on the part of the Hong Kong Immigration Department," RSF said, adding that work visas of this kind typically take four weeks to process.
"No explanation has been given for this silence," RSF said.
"This unusual and unexplained delay leads us to fear there has been direct political interference by the Beijing authorities ... in order to prevent the journalist from taking up his post."
RSF said Zhang's former employer had frequently angered Chinese officials with its outspoken stance and investigative reporting.
It also cited the recent blockage of the website of the Sun TV online magazine by Chinese Internet censors as further indication of behind-the-scenes intervention.
"Without warning or explanation, the television station was refused permission by the Chinese authorities to broadcast its programmes by cable at the end of 2009," RSF said.
Zhang had been dismissed from two previous editorial posts for his outspoken commentaries on Tibet and for refusing to make changes to articles in line with directives from China's powerful propaganda department.
"Since then, he has been banned from publishing anything he has written in any medium, whether in newspapers or on the Internet. All of his articles published online have been deleted," RSF said.
The group called on Tsang to ensure Zhang's visa was delayed no longer.
"The Immigration Department only responded to my application after reports appeared in the media," Zhang said last week in an interview with RFA's Cantonese service.
"[They] have asked for a lot of clarifications, and I have responded to all of them," he said.
Blogger and independent media commentator Oiwan Lam said that Hong Kong's Immigration Department, which presides over the territory's internal border with the rest of China as well as international arrivals, is no stranger to criticism.
"Their decisions are opaque, as in the case of the 1989 pro-democracy activists who were refused permission to enter Hong Kong from overseas," Lam said.
"Hong Kong work permits are usually pretty quick and very easy to get," she said. "This situation is ridiculous. When I heard about it, I thought it couldn't be true."
"They have dragged this out for six months now."
Last month, government broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) said it wouldn't renew the contracts of two popular current-affairs talk show hosts, Ng Chi-sum and Robert Chow.
Hong Kong has seen a number of outspoken radio personalities depart from key talk shows in the years since the handover of sovereignty to Beijing.
But RTHK management denied any political motive behind the latest move, saying it was for production reasons.
Under the terms of its handover from British rule, Hong Kong has been promised the continuation of existing freedoms of expression and association for 50 years.
But journalists fear that media organizations in the territory may nevertheless be highly susceptible to self-censorship, for fear of angering powerful corporations or high-ranking officials in mainland China.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service and RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.