Business Hong Kong

HK$2 billion SCMP-Alibaba deal brings fears for press freedom

Chinese internet giant Alibaba will buy Hong Kong’s largest English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, and other media assets of the SCMP Group for HK$2.06 billion, the Group said in a filing to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on Monday. The deal, which was confirmed on Friday following weeks of speculation, has drawn concerns about press freedom in the city.

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The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association issued a statement saying it worried that the ownership change would mean compromises on China coverage for SCMP, which has already been accused of gradually taking a more pro-Beijing editorial stance.

The HKJA was especially concerned about comments made by Alibaba Executive Vice Chairman Joseph Tsai, who said he hoped the SCMP could provide an angle different from mainstream Western media in reporting China.

Meanwhile, Chinese netizens lamented that the deal could mean “death” for the century-old newspaper. Some users on the Weibo platform lit candles for the SCMP, while others said the newspaper would become “government media.”

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Weibo users lit candles for the SCMP after it was sold to Alibaba. Photo: Weibo screenshot.

Good deal or bad deal?

The SCMP-Alibaba deal was one of the hottest topics over the weekend after the SCMP published the news on its website on Friday night, followed immediately by an Alibaba statement, an in-depth interview with Tsai and Tsai’s letter to readers, in which he vowed to preserve the newspaper’s editorial independence.

While most Western media reports compared the deal with Amazon chief Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post, Chinese reports examined the domestic media landscape. Many noted Alibaba was improving its media portfolio to counter the other two internet giants in the famous BAT club – Baidu and Tencent.

Both Baidu and Tencent have their own established web news portals and are influential in the entertainment and social media industries. Coming relatively late to the game, Alibaba has made a wise strategic move by buying an influential English media outlet, which has for decades reported on sensitive topics seen as taboos in China, new media Jiemian said.

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China’s BAT internet giants. Photo: HKFP.

Bloomberg noted the purchase was a good deal for Alibaba business-wise too. The e-commerce company acquired the SCMP for less than twice the media business’s annual revenue last year, while Business Insider was sold to Axel Springer SE for six times its estimated revenue for 2016, Bloomberg said. In the same report, Peter Schloss, managing partner of CastleHill Partners LLC, a Beijing-based advisory and investment company, noted Jack Ma was “doing the central government a favour by ensuring that the South China Morning Post is in friendly hands.”

However, Tech In Asia said the deal was a big PR mistake for Ma. “Alibaba is buying the South China Morning Post to spread a positive narrative about China. That’s a terrible idea,” editor Charles Custer said, “The problem – and this is the big mistake Alibaba is making – is that now Alibaba becomes the scapegoat for any and every instance of pro-Beijing bias found in the paper.”

HK$2 billion SCMP-Alibaba deal brings fears for press freedom