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Hong Kong Newspaper's Sale to Alibaba Fans Censorship Fears

  • Shannon Sant

FILE - Jack Ma, Alibaba's chairman and CEO, says he'll preserve editorial independence for the South China Morning Post, a publication his company is buying. Others doubt that. He's shown Sept. 9, 2015.

FILE - Jack Ma, Alibaba's chairman and CEO, says he'll preserve editorial independence for the South China Morning Post, a publication his company is buying. Others doubt that. He's shown Sept. 9, 2015.

Chinese Internet giant Alibaba’s announcement this week that it’s buying Hong Kong’s premier English-language newspaper has set off concerns that the move will stifle the city-state’s free press.

The e-commerce site on Monday said it had agreed to buy media assets of the SCMP Group Ltd., whose holdings include the South China Morning Post. Alibaba executives said the purchase was aimed at improving China’s image and countering what it calls the bias of Western news outlets.

The Morning Post, founded in 1903 and with a print circulation of 100,000 copies, has a reputation for deep reporting on subjects that mainland Chinese news outlets avoid.

'Activate the worries'

Alibaba’s purchase “will certainly activate the worries or fears of the local Hong Kong people about the change of the paper’s nature,” said Oiwan Lam, co-founder of inmediahk.net, a Chinese-language news website that covers Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong’s media industry, the purchase has raised concerns over the potential of increased censorship of the newspaper and throughout Hong Kong media.

Jack Ma, Alibaba’s executive chairman, promised he would preserve the paper’s editorial independence and wouldn’t censor coverage.

But it may be hard for the newspaper to remain isolated from the commercial interests of Alibaba and the political concerns of China’s central government, said David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project.

"The sort of gravitational pull of mainland commercial interests has been really strong over the last decade," Bandurski said. "So I think this is just a reality for Hong Kong that a lot of newspapers in Chinese, and also the SCMP even before this purchase, have carefully considered what to report in light of their business interests or pressure."

Lightening economic burden?

Alibaba's $226 million purchase of SCMP Group will ease economic pressures at the newspaper; its print circulation and profit growth have fallen in recent years.

Those who are skeptical that the newspaper’s new corporate parent will not interfere in its editorial independence say the purchase could actually create opportunities for media organizations that have made a point of remaining financially independent.

Tom Grundy, who founded the Hong Kong Free Press earlier this year, said his site's nonprofit business model ensures editorial independence.

"Every penny we make goes back to the company. There are no shareholders who will come and try to buy us. And we are not overly reliant on any one income stream," he said. "We are slowly diversifying our income streams so we are not overly reliant on advertising, for instance."

In-depth reporting

While the financial arrangement can strengthen its claims to editorial independence, many such outlets are still run on much smaller budgets that can make in-depth reporting difficult.

For now, many in Hong Kong say the SCMP’s purchase is at best another sign of the Chinese mainland’s consistent, encroaching influence in the city-state, where many have long been skeptical of Beijing’s intentions.

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