Japanese journalists have put Chief Executive Carrie Lam on the spot over the government's recent decision to refuse a work visa for a senior Financial Times editor.
The issue dominated a media session Lam gave in Tokyo on Thursday, with a barrage of questions over the expulsion of Victor Mallet and the state of press freedom in Hong Kong.
One reporter asked whether journalists would risk losing their visas if they interviewed supporters of Hong Kong independence when covering next year's 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
In response, Lam said: "The fact that so many overseas media, including Japanese media, have been using Hong Kong as a base for reporting is by itself a very good indication of the freedom of reporting, of journalism, in Hong Kong."
Asked how Hong Kong would respond to sliding down international press freedom rankings, Lam pointed to the city's ranking as the world's freest economy by a US think-tank.
She declined to comment specifically on Mallet's visa, except to say: "I understand that the applicant has filed a petition and the petition will have to be considered by myself in my capacity as the chief executive together with the executive council, so I'm afraid I could not further comment on the case."
One correspondent, who said he had worked in Hong Kong 20 years ago, said he saw the city's freedoms in decline, adding: "My concern is that Hong Kong will just end up being just another Chinese city, rather than the very attractive and very charming city that I used to know."
The government has never given a reason for the refusal of Mallet's visa, but his supporters have linked it to his hosting of a talk at the Foreign Correspondents' Club by the convenor of the now banned Hong Kong National Party.
Lam is on the fourth day of a five-day trip to Japan, the first by a Hong Kong leader in nine years. She said she received an "amazing" response from Japanese businesspeople she met, and "did not have a single question like those that I have just been asked" about press freedom.