Chinese internet giant Alibaba is to buy Hong Kong's South China
Hong Kong - AFP
Chinese internet giant Alibaba said on Friday (Dec 11) it would buy Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, pledging to maintain the newspaper's objectivity in the face of fears it will lose its independent voice.
The acquisition follows weeks of speculation over the future of the English-language newspaper and worry that it will become a mouthpiece for Beijing.
It comes at a time when concern over press freedom in Hong Kong is growing after attacks on journalists, reports of pressure on editorial staff from authorities and increasing self-censorship.
"(Alibaba) has entered into a definite agreement to acquire the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and other media assets of SCMP Group Limited," the Chinese firm said in a statement, without specifying a sum.
It said the sale would see Alibaba use its "digital expertise" to provide "comprehensive and insightful news and analysis of the big stories in Hong Kong and China".
The once globally renowned paper was founded in 1903 and has long given international readers an insider's perspective on Hong Kong and the mainland, but profits and sales have in recent years been hit by an industry-wide decline.
Readers' trust has also dipped as a more pro-Beijing editorial policy has not gone unnoticed in a city that saw tens of thousands take to the streets last year to protest against mainland interference.
In a letter to the newspaper's readers following the announcement of the sale, Alibaba executive vice chairman Joe Tsai vowed the SCMP would be "objective, accurate and fair" and have "the courage to go against conventional wisdom".
In an interview published on the SCMP website Tsai accused western media of bias against China, saying that Alibaba would "see things differently" - a statement likely to stoke critics' concern.
"A lot of journalists working with these western media organisations may not agree with the system of governance in China and that taints their view of coverage. We see things differently, we believe things should be presented as they are," he said.
He added that the deal would also help Alibaba take its message to a global audience. "We feel if people understand China better, they will understand our company better."
Political analyst Willy Lam said the move was part of a bigger push by China to influence Hong Kong's media.
"The public has good reason to be sceptical, simply because of the background of Jack Ma and the Alibaba group," Lam, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Centre for China Studies, told AFP.
Lam said Ma and the firm were "very close" to the leadership in Beijing.
"It is difficult to imagine he will tolerate critical articles which might reflect negatively on the Communist Party or on the Chinese political system in general," said Lam, who edited the paper's China section from 1989 until he was dismissed in 2000.
He says his critical views of Chinese politics got him fired.
Hong Kong is semi-autonomous after being handed back to China by Britain in 1997 and retains freedoms unseen on the mainland.
However, there are fears that those freedoms are being eroded, particularly since last year's mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the rejection of China's political reform package in June - an unprecedented rebuke to Beijing.
"There is evidence of a new Chinese government policy of trying to enhance control over Hong Kong through boosting mainland Chinese ownership of media here - two of the four TV stations have major shareholders who are Chinese businesses and this trend will continue," said Lam.
Ma founded Alibaba in 1999 and under his stewardship it has become China's biggest e-commerce company, operating consumer-to-consumer platform Taobao, which is estimated to hold more than 90 percent of the mainland market.
It has also branched out, buying ChinaVision Media in 2014 and renaming it Alibaba Pictures, today China's biggest film company, which produced this year's blockbuster Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.
Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch bought the SCMP in 1987, taking it private.
In 1993 Malaysia tycoon Robert Kuok's Kerry Media bought a controlling interest, prompting an editorial shift towards Beijing.