Chinese e-commerce firm Alibaba Group has bought Hong Kong's most influential English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, and its other media assets.

The newspaper, a frequent critic of China, becomes part of an internet empire that reaches deep into the fabric of daily life in China.  

Alibaba Executive Vice Chairman Joseph Tsai has pledged to take down the SCMP's paywall and make its content free on the internet and mobile devices.

SCMP Group Ltd. is being sold by Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok. Financial terms were not disclosed.

"The SCMP will stay close to its roots, with a strong China focus offering distinctive and informed analysis on trade, business, economy and society, while maintaining its status as the paper of record for Hong Kong," Tsai said in a letter to readers. 

How independent will it be?

He dismissed worries that the editorial independence would be compromised, although Alibaba chair Jack Ma has close ties to China's leaders.

"In reporting the news, the SCMP will be objective, accurate and fair," Tsai said.

Tsai said he has a vision of expanding SCMP's coverage globally, marrying Alibaba's technology experience with the Post's journalism record.

The Post has a wide international following for its China coverage, including reporting on the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and last year's pro-democracy street protests in Hong Kong.

Many of the political scandals and human rights stories it has covered in China are off limits to mainland media.

Marriage of newspapers, new media

Hong Kong has a legal framework that guarantees freedom of the press and other civil liberties but Beijing has blocked efforts to get freer voting and more autonomy in the territory.

In buying the newspaper, Alibaba follows in the footsteps of Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post.

"Why is Alibaba buying into traditional media, considered by some a sunset industry? The simple answer is that we don't see it that way," Tsai said.

The South China Morning Post remains profitable, taking in pages of ads from Hong Kong's luxury-goods sellers and real-estate developers at a time when newspapers are struggling worldwide.

SCMP Group's annual revenue topped $1.24 billion Hong Kong ($220 million Cdn) last year and its operating profit was $167.7 million HK ($29 million) last year, according to company filings,    

With files from the Associated Press