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Nepal’s Deputy PM Crosses Swords With Largest Media House

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Nepal’s Deputy PM Crosses Swords With Largest Media House

Riled by news coverage of his corruption and illegal holding of two passports, Rabi Lamichhane reportedly ordered the arrest of the chairman of Kantipur Media Group.

Nepal’s Deputy PM Crosses Swords With Largest Media House

Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane, November 3, 2022.

Credit: Wikimedia/Rastriya Swatantra Party

On May 21, Kailash Sirohiya, chairman of the Kantipur Media Group (KMG), the largest and most influential private media house in Nepal, was arrested at the KMG headquarters. The district court of Dhanusha had issued an arrest warrant against him on the charge that he was using multiple citizenship certificates.

Sirohiya issued a 10-point clarification, saying the case against him had no merit. There was no need for his arrest, he said, as he would have been present at the court had the authority written him a letter to do so. He squarely blamed the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane, saying, “This is pure vengeance against the news coverage on Lamichhane’s dual citizenship, holding passports of two different countries and embezzlement of savings of depositors of multiple cooperatives.” He alleged that the case was filed on Lamichhane’s behest by his party cadre.

Reaction to Sirohiya’s arrest was swift.

Thirty-one editors of various news organizations in Nepal wrote a joint letter to Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alleging that Sirohiya’s “arrest from inside a media house was intended to create pressure and fear on the press.” They accused Lamichhane of attacking the media for their reporting on the cooperative fraud, where Lamichhane and his partner were accused of misappropriating $7.5 million.

Asia News Network, an alliance of 20 leading media outlets representing 19 countries, wrote a letter to Dahal expressing concern over “media intimidation.” The Network warned that Sirohiya’s arrest for his media house’s investigation into the conduct of a politician [Lamichhane] impairs Nepal’s reputation as a democratic country.

Nepal Human Rights Commission called on the government to respect press freedom. Asian Human Rights Commission described the arrest as “personal vendetta [of Lamichhane] against the media.” It further warned that media suppression attempts are unlikely to end at KMG.

Amnesty International Secretary General pressed for Sirohiya’s immediate release. Former President Ram Baran Yadav was among several leaders who said the arrest was unconstitutional. The U.S. embassy urged the government and people of Nepal to have a “meaningful dialogue about how to ensure good governance, freedom of the press, and people’s fundamental rights.”

Lamichhane has denied the accusations of his involvement in the cooperative fraud. Instead, he lambasted the way the media has treated him, accusing them of running a “media trial” against him and his party, while ignoring accusations of corruption against the establishment leaders.

This is not the first tussle between Lamichhane and the KMG. His previous stint as Nepal’s deputy prime minister and home minister ended within a month in January 2023, owing to his dual citizenship. He had obtained American citizenship in 2014, which meant he renounced Nepali citizenship by default. He left his American citizenship in 2018 and was eligible for Nepali citizenship, yet he needed to go through due process.

In the interim, he used the invalidated citizenship certificate to obtain a Nepali passport. The Supreme Court of Nepal therefore scrapped his membership in parliament. After he secured Nepali citizenship again, he won a by-election by a record margin.

The KMG reported extensively on Lamichhane’s citizenship issues and was instrumental in bringing the case to national attention.

Upon his party’s pullout from the coalition government in February 2023, he lashed out at the mainstream media, particularly KMG. He accused the 12 establishment media houses of running like a cartel and that the political leaders were scared of them. He asserted that the media “influenced” the Supreme Court’s decision, and said that the fraternity of 12 influential media houses in Nepal were the real enemy of the people.

Ironically, Lamichhane gained national prominence as a straight-talking television presenter, unafraid to criticize the leaders or government.

In personally attacking KMG and Sirohiya, Lamichhane claimed that Sirohiya gets “golden shares” for every big business established in the country to ensure that KMG does not write against the establishment. He accused Sirohiya of running a fiefdom and warned that he would rally his supporters to “encircle” the media house if it continued spreading “falsehoods.”

Sirohiya vehemently denied the accusations and counterclaimed that Lamichhane was attempting to divert attention from his citizenship and passport issue.

Later, KMG was again critical in investigating and publishing reports about the alleged cooperative fraud involving Lamichhane, his partner at Galaxy Media Group, and even his family. It has captured national attention.

The main opposition party, Nepali Congress (NC), has used the issue to attack the ruling coalition, particularly Lamichhane. This has led to the government agreeing to form a high-level parliamentary committee to investigate the matter. Some details are yet to be worked out.

Lamichhane’s attack on the media shows that Nepali politicians are yet to fully internalize the concept of freedom of expression especially when they are at the receiving end of media criticism. While this is not an isolated incident, a celebrated former television presenter engaging in vendetta politics against his former fraternity with such vitriol is especially jarring.

As jarring is the way parties are willing to use an issue to remain in power or to gain power. On the one hand, the NC offered Lamichhane the prime ministerial portfolio if he partnered with the NC to form a government replacing Dahal as prime minister earlier this year. After Lamichhane chose to join Dahal’s coalition, NC relentlessly attacked his role in the cooperative fraud and prevented him from speaking in parliament as home minister for two months.

On the other hand, Dahal has remained mum to ensure the survival of his tenuous coalition. He does not want to push Lamichhane against the wall but is facing increasing pressure from the opposition and the public to address the massive cooperative fraud. Lamichhane’s Rashtriya Swatantra Party has become the coalition’s Achilles’ heel. Therefore, he is painstakingly negotiating with his coalition partners and the opposition to form an investigative committee but with a mandate that Lamichhane can also agree to.

Additionally, it also reveals Dahal’s limited power despite his heading the government. Khadga Prasad Oli retains significant influence because his party, the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist is the largest coalition partner by a distance. The ministries run by other coalition partners often run on the minister’s whim because they know they cannot be fired.

Dahal reportedly requested Lamichhane not to arrest Sirohiya “immediately” after the warrant was issued. Yet, Lamichhane chose to ignore his premier’s appeal. This shows the limited power Dahal wields in the government.

In saying that, this episode shows the robustness of the Nepali media landscape. It is chaotic, and some may serve the interests of a specific party or businessperson. Nevertheless, the sheer number and diversity have created a vigorous media scene. That, in itself, is an achievement for Nepali democracy.