The acquisition of Hong Kong’s flagship English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba earlier this year has, in the eyes of many, contributed to the deterioration of press freedom in the city.
In an interview confirming plans for the acquisition with the South China Morning Post in December 2015, Executive Vice President of the Alibaba Group Joseph Tsai declared that “mainstream western news organisations cover China…through the lens that [it] is a communist state”, stating that foreign journalists’ differing political ideologies “taints their view of coverage”. Tsai claimed that the explicit bias of western journalism has led to the warped and unjust portrayal of Chinese affairs, then pledged to “[p]resent facts, tell the truth” and guide the Post upon principles of journalistic integrity.
In a similar interview with the Post in April 2016, Alibaba CEO and founder Jack Ma echoed Tsai’s emphasis on “unbiased” reporting, stating: “I believe the most important thing for the media is to be objective, fair and balanced. We should not report a story with preconceptions or prejudice.”
However, due to the nature of Tsai and Ma’s positions within Alibaba’s political hierarchy, one may consider official interviews with their own newspaper a piece of propaganda, designed to push forth their own journalistic, economic, or political agendas.
One may also question their suggestion that international publications cover Chinese internal affairs with a “tainted lens”. If “western” or foreign journalists report facts or break stories deemed too controversial for publication in China, does that necessarily indicate their coverage is “tainted” or biased? Is the concealing of information from the Chinese public then not un-“balanced” and un-“fair”? Who is the real culprit here?
Meanwhile, Hong Kong political pundits have deemed the acquisition a duplicitous political ploy by the Chinese government. In a report by the Paris-based non-profit Reporters Without Boarders, political scientist and former China Editor of the Post is quoted stating: “Jack Ma is acting as a political proxy for the Chinese government and its goal of silencing the last independent media voices in the territory.” Yet once again one must consider the source of this information. Wouldn’t a statement published by an organization tasked with promoting press freedom, by its nature, unequivocally condemn the Chinese government for its tight grasp on news coverage? Could this information, too, be perceived as propaganda, albeit of an unconventional form?
However, despite continued coverage of controversial Hong Kong-China affairs (such as extensively reporting the case of the missing booksellers, or facilitating discussion over the future of Hong Kong independence) almost six months after Alibaba’s acquisition, many continue to question the editorial independence of the Post. Amidst the uproar of a radically polarized political climate one must wonder whether the Post will continue to uphold its former journalistic integrity. Needless to say, only time will tell.
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