Following weeks of speculation, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group has announced it agreed to buy the biggest English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post (SCMP), together with other media assets owned by the SCMP Group for $266 million.
But many in the industry have raised concerns about the extent to which the new owners might curtail the editorial independence of one of Hong Kong’s largest and oldest papers. Jack Ma, owner of the Alibaba Group, is considered to be conservative and not particularly critical about China.
An ‘alternative’ perspective
In a “Letter to readers” published on the newspaper website last Friday, executive vice chairman of Alibaba Group Joseph Tsai said the paper would uphold its objectivity and accuracy. At the same time, Tsai criticized Western media in a SCMP interview for covering China “through a very particular lens,” arguing the views of Western journalists are “tainted.”
Journalists are concerned that Alibaba’s purchase of Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post may tighten Beijing’s grip on the century-old paper. But not everyone agrees. DW examines
Tsai said that under Alibaba the paper would cover China from an alternative perspective – the perspective that “China is important, China is a rising economy,” and “people should learn more about China.”
But instead of reassuring readers and journalists of the quality of the paper, Tsai’s statements seem to have raised even more concerns.
“Reporters feel uncertain about how things are going to develop, and the ‘particular lens’ comments are very worrying,” an SCMP journalist told DW on condition of anonymity.
The Hong Kong Journalist Association (HKJA) said in a statement on Friday they are concerned that the purchase of the paper by the Alibaba Group “will further compromise press freedom in Hong Kong,” and is particularly concerned with the so-called “another angle” mentioned by Tsai.
Media experts, however, say they don’t believe the acquisition will bring significant changes to the editorial standards of the paper, “Technically the change of ownership does not make a big difference from how the newspaper has been before. It was not very outspoken in the first place because of the business interest of its previous owner in China,” Francis Lee, Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication, told DW.
Since 1993 the SCMP Group was in the hands of Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok, a billionaire businessman viewed by many as having a pro-Beijing inclination because of his vested business interests in China. SCMP has long been criticized for not having a critical stance when covering China-related issues.
“It is hard to believe there has been no self-censorship in the paper,” Professor Lee said.
“It is actually common for many owners and shareholders of Hong Kong media to have close relationships with Beijing. The strategy of keeping media owners close by has been used by the Chinese government for the past 20 years,” the professor added.
A long-standing tradition
A 2015 report by independent watchdog organization Freedom House claims that Beijing’s enormous economic power not only exerts indirect pressure on Hong Kong’s media, but has also led to growing self-censorship in recent years.
The report also points out that publications known for their critical views of the Chinese government are facing more difficulties in attracting advertisers given that private business owners fear that associating themselves with publications critical of the Chinese government would damage their economic interests on the mainland. Self-censorship is then exercised in order to keep advertisers, say experts.
The HKJA also highlighted in its 2014 report that the placing or pulling of ads acts as an invisible hand to support or penalize publications. “By placing or pulling advertisements, those in power can exert immense influence on the media and its management,” says the report.
Many Hong Kong media owners are tycoons with business interests in China, and half of them have accepted appointments to China’s main political assemblies such as National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, according to a report published last year by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based non-profit organization
What’s noteworthy about Alibaba’s purchase is that this is the first time a Chinese company has decided to officially own a media organization. Normally it would be enough for Beijing to just establish complex relations with the owners of the media company, said Professor Lee.
It all depends on Ma’s style
“These relations between media owners and Beijing have not necessarily led to an editorial bias. The question now is whether Ma will actively intervene in editorial decisions of the newspaper?” It’s still unclear how Ma will manage a media organization, the professor adds.
In the meantime, SCMP reporters are hoping that they will be able to maintain a certain level of editorial independence. “SCMP has never been very critical when covering China. However, we still enjoy a certain degree of freedom when it comes to local stories, just look at our coverage about the Occupy Movement last year and you will see,” the SCMP reporter told DW.
“Ma clearly has an agenda, but the question is whether the situation will become worse? If so, there’s no point in him buying the paper because that would destroy the credibility that is left and ultimately be counterproductive for propaganda purposes. I hope he is smarter than that.”