Updated: Jul 26, 2019
In December of 2018, the biggest English-language newspaper in Nepal, the Kathmandu Post, published the first of six front-page, "above-the-fold" articles about me and the fire truck expedition. The catchy headlines read Watchmaker promising fire trucks has as series of dodgy financial dealings and a checkered past, and Using two passports, Michael Kobold evaded Nepali visa regulations, to name only two. The unprecedented amount of space afforded to the stories beneath the headlines implied to the reader that these stories must be of utmost national importance.
Newspaper editors spend hours deciding which stories to place on Page 1, and in which order of importance. There are certain rules to guide the editors in their daily decision-making process. The right-hand column, for instance, is always reserved for the most important story of the day. That’s unless the story is of such magnitude that it displaces all other news.
You’ll find the main or lead story in the farthest upper-right hand column. Why? Tradition. Newspapers used to appear on newsstands folded and displayed with their top right-hand quarter showing. They made up the front page with the lead story there to entice readers.You’ll find the second most important story at the top far left, unless it’s related to the lead story. –How to Read a Newspaper by Walter Cronkite
Dedicating the entire front page (the term is "above-the-fold" in newspaper language) is typically reserved for such news as the Kennedy assassination, Prince Diana's tragic car crash and declarations of war against sovereign nations, and not for stories about watchmakers and fire trucks -no matter how corrupt or "dodgy". There simply is too many other news of national and international importance as to relegate them to "below-the-fold" or, worse, to inside pages. Yet Anup Kaphle, the young editor-in-chief of the Kathmandu Post, decreed that the stories about me and the fire trucks carry so much importance that all other news are secondary. To be clear, Anup Kaphle made this decision not just in one isolated case, but six times.
By some magic, the fire truck expedition and I displaced articles about students rioting and destroying a university campus in far western Nepal, as well as the filing of criminal charges against the former head of Nepal's central bank in a corruption case involving the procurement of newly-printed Nepali rupee bank notes. Another story of national importance was that Malaysia had begun targeting middlemen to end debt bondage of migrant workers. Few countries besides Nepal rely more heavily on remittances from migrant workers and a series of reports in the international media about the slave-like conditions in which these workers are held had previously made headlines around the world. But on on December 20, 2018, the story that had the most far-reaching implications for the general public of Nepal was that yet another urgently-needed, corruption-plagued hydropower project was being delayed indefinitely.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are lost every year due to corruption associated with Nepal’s infrastructure projects. Corruption is so prevalent in Nepal that following the 2015 earthquakes donor countries were reluctant to release the funds they had committed to rebuild Nepal. In a decision that stunned Nepali government officials, the German government withdrew a multi-million dollar grant to rebuild cultural heritage sites in the ancient city of Bhaktapur over the local government’s insistence to control which construction companies would be awarded contracts. “We didn’t agree with how the Nepali contractors operate and we didn’t agree with their proposed rates, there were just too many questions and too many inefficiencies,” a German official said.
While foreign donors were preoccupied with reconstructing heritage sites, the people of the Kathmandu Valley were more concerned about when they might finally receive running water instead of having to rely on water trucks to fill up tanks in their backyards.
Despite Kathmandu’s close proximity to the Himalayas, the valley is still waiting for the completion of the Melamchi Water Project, which has been delayed repeatedly since its inception in December 2000. A recent article, A Klepto Republic, in the Nepali Times newspaper, a weekly with a reputation for integrity and bold reporting, lays out in detail the astounding level of corruption. Similarly, Nepal suffers from an acute power shortage. The answer to the problem is to build hydroelectric power plants on Nepal’s many raging rivers. Yet despite being the country that has more stored water than any other country except Greenland, Nepal simply cannot provide the two basic services running water and 24-hour electricity to its citizens.
None of that made it onto the front page of the Kathmandu Post at any time since the newspaper’s founding. Not even the 2015 blockade was on December 20, 2018. Instead, a photograph of me, taken by nationally prominent photographer Prasant Shrestha, graced the center of the front page, right beneath the aforementioned, ominous headline. On the other days when stories about me and the fire truck expedition made it onto the front page of the Kathmandu Post, there were plenty of more important developments that had a greater impact on the Nepali people.
To the general public, all of these articles must have appeared as the results of masterful investigative journalism about the highly unethical practices of a corrupt foreigner - just another naramro kuire. To me, they presented just the latest of a long string of obstacles that threatened to derail the fire truck expedition on the one hand, and early Christmas presents of sorts on the other, because my colleagues and I had tried in vain to get Nepal’s biggest media house behind the public awareness campaign about the lack of adequate fire services in Nepal. For the past five years, that team of professionals and I have been on a mission to deliver a number of reconditioned American fire trucks to Nepal.
What started out as a road trip adventure had morphed into a major expedition. Over the course of three years of being in Nepal, we discovered a lot of intriguing things about the country’s firefighting services, the endemic corruption across all levels of Nepal’s bureaucracy, media and business community, as well as Indian government’s efforts to undermine Nepal in its development in order to maintain a tight grip on the small, sovereign nation.
There is a general lack of awareness among the Nepali public that such a basic service as a functioning fire department is lacking in every one of Nepal's cities. To create awareness of this fact, I wrote a book, Nepal Needs Fire Trucks, and toured the country as part of a public relations campaign. The campaign generated dozens of news stories in Nepal and around the world, and soon, people from all over Nepal sent us live video feeds and still pictures of ongoing fires. The images we received tell a sad tale of government neglect and corruption. The most shocking photograph in a vast collection of depressing and mind numbing images depicts barefooted firemen clad in t-shirts, shorts and slippers standing in a pool of water while attempting to extinguish an electrical generator fire using water. Every child knows that water and electricity don't mix and even the firemen in Nepal have discovered that the international practice is to use foam. "Many times department don't have money for foam purchasing," said a fireman of the Bhaktapur fire department.
The term fireman in Nepal is used rather loosely. While in other nations firemen are highly trained professionals who receive continuous updates on best practices and modern equipment, Nepal's fire departments are staffed by police officers on a two-year-long rotation. Even if these officers received any meaningful form of training, which they do not, they will rotate out of the fire brigade and go back to being policemen just as their international counterparts would expect to be sufficiently trained to call themselves professional firemen.
In 2018, in a country of over 30 million people, there was literally only one internationally certified fireman and he had been moved to a desk job in a deep crevasse of Nepal's bureaucracy in order to punish him for speaking out about the fact that his department only had three functioning fire engines. Until I corralled the international media to shine its spotlight on the state of Kathmandu's lack of fire engines, Kishor Kumar Bhattarai was the not-so-proud chief of the Kathmandu fire department.
Two weeks after dozens of newspapers around the world carried stories of Nepal's inadequate fire services, Chief Kishor found himself sitting at a desk in a battered make-shift shelter that over time became a permanent dog-house of sorts for any offenders the Kathmandu Metropolitan City's bureaucrats deemed unworthy of a proper office. To further exact a punishment on their city's troublemaker fire chief, the bureaucrats took away Chief Kishor's car. With only a meagre $250 monthly salary, it seemed unlikely that the hopelessly optimistic Mr. Bhattarai would ever arrive at the scene of another fire unless he walked, took the bus, or rode his old motorcycle.
I felt guilty about the fact that Kishor had gotten such a bad deal as a result of the press coverage I had drummed up, so I visited him in his new office in order to apologize. "Mike, you are a real friend to me and to Nepal. You don't have to apologize to me. I always say the truth. We have three (fire engines), I say three," Kishor said with his trademark smile. A few days earlier, a massive fire at a large motorcycle repair shop in the middle of Kathmandu caused a huge black plume of smoke to rise over the city. "When I looked out and saw the smoke, I feel so pity inside, because I cannot go there. I have no car. I have to stay here."
Over the course of three years, my colleagues and I rushed to dozens of fires. In all of these instances, the various fire departments responded with an enormous delay, often up to 45 minutes or longer, despite the distance between the fire and the fire station being often being only a few kilometers. Even more concerning was the revelation that once the firemen arrived at the scene, they were often clueless on how to put out the fire. To add insult to injury, in many instances the fire engines either had no water in their respective tanks or only a few liters due to leaks in their rusting tanks.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the word, ranking next to Afghanistan in the United Nations Development Index. The fact that Afghanistan has been bombed continuously for over 30 years, while no nation has ever dropped a single bomb over Nepal, serves to illustrate the state in which Nepal's citizens live. Basic services such as running water and 24-hour electricity are lacking in many communities, including in Kathmandu, where potable water is delivered by a fleet of decrepit tanker trucks. Nepal is also one of the most corrupt countries, ranking 124th out of 180 countries according to Transparency International. In a country famous for corruption, Nepal's bureaucracy is famous for being among the three pillars of government corruption.
"Police, Army, Sinha Durbar," a junior government officer told me over tea at a confectionary shop across the street from Kathmandu's City Hall. The seat of the central government, Singha Durbar, was where most of the money was flowing out into private accounts. "Army is only so corrupt because some Army Chiefs in the past have purchased expensive helicopters. They paid for three and received two," the official told me. "Police because when someone is under investigation, a Singha Durbar official will call the investigating police officer's commander and for a small fee make the investigation disappear."
I later confirmed the junior official's assertions with the deputy chief of the Central Bureau of Investigation, who told me "If a minister or secretary calls, what can my men do? This is how it works here. Very frustrating. The only people who go to jail are the those who have no political connections and those who didn't pay to get out of jail. I love Germany, I have been there many times. You have law and order. Here we only have chaos and impunity." When I asked the deputy chief to explain how the government officials in Singha Durbar complex make their money, he looked at me with surprise. "You don't know? Commissions! It's all about commissions. When a bridge is needed somewhere, the contractors triple the price. Then they give up to one third to the government official in charge of procurement."
A Scandinavian country's ambassador explained to me that this commission racket "is a gift that keeps to on giving. First they get a commission. Then the contractor builds a shoddy bridge or road. By the time the road is build, the original government officer in charge rotates to another department and his replacement awards a new contract to the same contractor in exchange for another commission." When I asked the ambassador if he thought there was going to be any progress in Nepal, the seasoned diplomat shrugged his shoulders and said "it's hopeless."
In order to get official permission to bring the fire trucks into the country, I had relied on Chief Kishor and on the Nepalese embassy in Washington, D.C. to deal with the authorities at the various government ministries inside Singha Durbar. Still, there was no progress as our file was permanently stuck or repeatedly lost. The junior official's and the Scandinavian ambassador's detailed explanations of how corruption works inside Singha Durbar made me wonder if there would ever be a happy end to the fire truck expedition. Before I had left for Nepal, I made a pact with myself never to pay a single bribe. There would have to be another solution.
A few days later I breached security at Singha Durbar by driving into the heavily guarded complex without a gate pass. I had made several attempts to receive a gate pass over the course of the previous three days, but no amount of convincing had any effect. "You must have an appointment, sir," the bored official at the gate pass window told me. "But I have an appointment," I said. "I tried calling the concerned persons and nobody is picking up," the bored man said. He was right, even though I had made an appointment, no-one picked up my calls. When I recalled my frustration at a dinner party, a member of one of Nepal's former ruling families said "You don't need an appointment, you just walk in, you're a white guy. What are they going to do to you?" Everyone around the large mahogany table nodded their approval, including an ex-Army chief.
Keeping this advice in mind, on the fourth day, I bypassed the gate pass window and headed directly to the entrance with the intent to walk onto the government compound in a manner that reflected confidence. Even so, an overly eager police officer stopped me as I approached the gate. "You need a gate pass to proceed, sir." No amount of convincing caused the officer to yield to my request. Defeated, I walked back to where I had parked my car. I then observed a number of cars slipping through the security check without stopping. Apparently, these vehicles were known to the guards.
Then I noticed that all the cars with white number plates were allowed to pass, while vehicles with red number plates were stopped. I waited for a car with white government license plates to approach and quickly got behind it, driving close enough to hide the non-government red plates on my vehicle. This trick did not go unnoticed by the same overly eager policeman I had encountered earlier. The attentive officer recognized me and yelled "Stop” as I drove past him. Turning up the volume of the radio and pretending not to hear him, closely following the car with the white number plates.
In the rearview mirror my peripheral vision could detect an excitedly waving police officer jumping up and down.
On closer observation, I discovered that the overly eager officer had dispatched three Royal Gurkha soldiers in my direction. Carrying M-16 rifles, the Gurkhas ran with unnerving speed after my army green Range Rover, which was on permanent loan from a close personal friend. At one time Princess Shruti of Nepal rode in this vehicle, which was instantly recognizable by its unusual color and stately elegance. This was my first trip into Singha Durbar without an escort and I had trouble finding the ministry where I had an appointment. Stopping to ask for direction was not an option, with the Gurkhas closing in, and so I briskly drove all over the expanse of Singha Durbar looking for the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development, blaring Moments of Pleasure by Kate Bush, this being on the CD my friend had left in his car.
By the time I found the ministry and had parked, the Gurkhas were out of breath, panting as they approached the famous Range Rover. "Sir, do you have a gate pass," one of their number asked politely. "You need a gate pass, sir, please proceed to the exit." I was polite but adamant that I had made an appointment and that this was of no use. "General XXXXX XXXXXtold me just to go in without an appointment," I explained. The general said this, the Gurkhas wanted to know. How did I know the general? "The general's brother is the owner of this vehicle, they are my friends." The Gurkhas glanced at the army green Range Rover and for a moment considered their opinions. "Alright, sir, we believe you," one of the Gurkhas said. "What brings you to Nepal?" After causing the three fit Gurkhas to run a few extra miles, I felt bad and thought it was only appropriate to explain the fire truck expedition to them.
"We prefer to buy fire engines, Mr. Kobold, in fact we are looking at buying 30 fire engines from India" said Kedar Adhikari, the secretary of the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development (MoFALD). "We also do not accept used fire engines in Nepal. This is according to our laws. If you want to come back with new fire engines, you are welcome here." This arrogance angered me and I explained to Mr. Adhikari that if he would just allow the fire trucks my colleagues and I were offering into the country, we could organize the expedition and later use the fire engines to train firemen. "I have given you my answer. We will not accept your fire engines unless they are new. And please do not donate them, we prefer to purchase the vehicles. You can submit a new proposal."
On my way back to the car, I wandered through the halls of MoFALD and discovered that most of the offices were empty. In one office, a kind-looking man invited me to sit down at his desk. Over tea, the man explained that this was his second time in his career as a civil servant that a foreigner had tried to bring fire trucks to Nepal. "What happened to him," I asked. "He had the help of Mr. Adhikari, our secretary" the man said. "But Mr. Adhikari just told me that he doesn't want my fire engines" I countered. The man looked at me, finished his long sip of tea and said "before Deepak Adhikari was secretary of MoFALD, he was CEO of Kathmandu Metropolitan City. That is when he went to Europe to bring some used fire engines. I was here at MoFALD at the time."
The Kathmandu Post writer first contacted me on December 19th, 2018, at 1:26 P.M. Nepal time. In two emails the writer stated:
"My colleague and I have been working on a story about your project the 'Nepal Firetruck Expedition...we wanted to give you a chance to respond and to have your voice heard. We are hoping to run the story in the next few days so it'd be great if we could interview you at the earliest."
You can't control the mediais an old adage, but in terms of timing, this interview request could not have been worse. Any bad publicity about the project or about me would scare the officials at the Nepal Tourism Board unnecessarily, I thought. I thus made an attempt to stall the release of the story.
The first person I called was Suraj Vaidja, the newly-appointed governor of the Visit Nepal 2020 initiative. Suraj was one of the expedition's strongest proponents. In countless meetings, Suraj rallied support from all kinds of local companies and even convinced the president of Rotary Club of Nepal -a very kind gentleman named Chintamani Bhattarai- to make Rotary Nepal a backer of the expedition. "Suraj, you have to help me, the Kathmandu Post is going to run a story about me and the expedition. If the story could be held for one or two weeks, that will be enough time for NTB and me to sign the amended MoU," I said. "Let me get back to you, Mike, I will see what I can do."
As it turned out, there was no way to delay the publication of the story because it was scheduled to run the very next morning. This surprised me for two reasons: First, anyone who has visited Nepal knows that nothing there happens fast. There is a concept called Nepali Time that as a German watch manufacturer I had some difficulty appreciating when I first arrived in Nepal in 2008. To send an email to the subject of a major investigation by a team of journalists on the eve of the article's release, and expect to craft a balanced, nuanced story which then has to be fact-checked would perhaps be unlikely in a Swiss newsroom, but in the chaotic microcosm of Kathmandu it is simply impossible. This was the first of many clues that the Kathmandu Post was running a smear campaign.
Even more damning was the fact that despite having numerous contacts at Kantipur Media Group and the Kathmandu Post, and despite having enjoyed very cordial relations with the chairman of Kantipur, Kailash Sirohiya, I received no warning from inside the news organization that such a smear campaign was being planned. This could mean only two things: the order to attack me had come directly from the chairman himself, and the team of journalists working on the case reported directly to the editor-in-chief, Anup Kaphle and kept other editors at the newspaper in the dark.
The fact is that had the articles about the fire truck expedition and me come out two or three weeks later than they did, then the fire trucks would have arrived in Nepal in March 2019, in time for the expedition to coincide with the spring tourist season. This was the timeframe the Nepal Tourism Board preferred. Following the two earthquakes and the blockade, Nepal's tourism industry had collapsed. The high-profile nature of the fire truck expedition, with dozens of VIPs and celebrities, a complement of journalists and a documentary film crew was bound to have a positive impact in terms of broadcasting the message that Nepal is safe and open for business.
Until recently, the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) was a highly controversial organization whose former head is currently serving time in prison for corruption. Deepak Joshi, the man chosen as his replacement, was a junior officer within NTB during the scandal and unblemished by the controversy. By selecting Deepak Joshi as new CEO, NTB's board of directors made a brilliant decision, for they could not have found a more cheerful and ethical man. Unfortunately, the board failed to appreciate that promoting a junior officer, no matter how talented and honest, to the position of CEO by bypassing several rungs in the career ladder, will upset that person's former superiors. This is true in any organization, but especially so in Nepal's bureaucracy, where any person's promotion is jealously watched by everyone else.
“I believe Deepak Joshi is a good man,” said Suman Shrestha, the head of sales at the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu, “but he has a lot of internal politics to contend with. You know how these things work in Nepal, Michael, you’ve been around long enough to understand.” What I failed to understand is how complex the inner working of NTB are and under what scrutiny by his board of directors Deepak is at all times. “We cannot do anything without the board’s approval, even something like a goodwill ambassadorship,” Deepak told me in one of over 150 meetings. A few months later, shortly before I received two calls from journalists working for Nepali newspapers not affiliated with Kantipur, Deepak told me in another meeting “I am 100% supportive of the fire truck expedition, but some board members have expressed doubts. We have to make this project happen. Then we can do so many other projects together. Let’s just get this project done first.”
Deepak and I had been discussing for some time to amend the MoU between NTB and Soarway Institute for Development (SID), the corporate front for the fire truck expedition. The expedition had always been a Kobold project but the 2ndsecretary at the Nepalese embassy in Washington told me that the officials at the various ministries in Kathmandu would prefer to see an aid organization behind the project. I knew that using Soarway Foundation was not possible, because the fire truck expedition was a commercial venture and thus would not be compatible with the charitable nature of the Soarway Foundation. “You can be the biggest supporter and cheerleader for the Soarway Foundation, but you can never appear to be receiving a benefit from it,” my friend and attorney John Gaughan warned me.
One of the key points in the MoU between SID and NTB was that five fire trucks would have to be handed over to Kathmandu’s municipal government. However, the city’s disaster management officials had recently reversed their earlier decision to accept the fire trucks. Since the original MoU had been signed, a number of other municipalities had expressed interest in the fire engines, and with respect to the tourism promotion campaign it had always seemed a trivial matter which cities received the fire engines. Yet if the MoU was not amended to reflect that the vehicles could be handed over to other cities in Nepal, NTB could claim a breach of contract and refuse to pay the second installment of $100,000.
As an alternative to this amendment, I had presented Deepak another option, namely to use the second $100,000 owed to SID to pay the shipping company, Maersk, to ship the fire trucks. My colleagues and I had met Saurabh Saxena, the Maersk country manager, regularly over the past six months to determine the procedure of shipping the trucks to India and trucking them to the border of Nepal, and to put together a framework by which NTB would pick up the shipping costs once the trucks reached Nepal. “Once NTB issues us an official document that they will cover the shipping costs and associated fees, we will proceed by sending a team over to where the trucks are parked and assess their size. Then we’ll get the rigging done and ship them.” The most important part of our discussions with Saurabh was that NTB would not be liable for any charges before the trucks arrived in Nepal. “That is not a problem, all we need is the official document guaranteeing that they will be liable for all costs,” Saurabh repeated.
Deepak Joshi convened a meeting with his advisors and NTB’s attorney, in which the attorney told me “we are prepared to amend the MoU, but we first need to have a discussion with Maersk directly to confirm what you are telling us. Only then can we amend the MoU.” When I asked the attorney how soon the MoU could be amended, so that we could anticipate a ship-date for the trucks, he said it would take no longer than two weeks. Shortly after the meeting, the Kathmandu Post began its smear campaign.
The Kathmandu Post (TKP) and its parent company, Kantipur Media Group, are infamous within Nepal for their lack of journalistic and business ethics. KMG is Nepal's biggest media house and TKP the country's #1 English language daily. KMG is owned by a Nepalese family of Indian origin. Given the Government of India's decades-long meddling in Nepal's internal affairs, the Indian background of the Kantipur owners alone is problematic.
Far worse, Kantipur has repeatedly been accused of extortion, including by foreign embassies in Kathmandu, by Nepal-based telecom Ncell, as well as by politicians. The Kantipur racket spans more than a decade and over the years has been perfected in such a way that it is almost impossible to prove. However, through insider sources, my colleagues and I have been able to piece together the story. Moreover, we were later able to verify the information with bankers, captains of industry, politicians, diplomats and journalists, including current and former Kantipur employees, as well as those not affiliated with Kantipur.
In a series of meetings with Kantipur’s owner, his business development staff and editors, my team and I received a first-hand look at how Kantipur operates. In those meetings, we explained that the core value the fire truck expedition offered to potential media partners are one-on-one interviews with the celebrity expedition members. Before I departed for Nepal in September 2015, AOL, Outside magazine and PBS through its affiliate WQED in Pittsburgh, had already signed up as media partners in the United States. We were also in preliminary talks with Fox News, CNN and several other media partners. Yet only in our meetings with Kantipur were we asked to pay for coverage. “You’re telling me that you’re going to let us organize this expedition, bring all these celebrities to Nepal in order to help your country, and you want us to pay in order to get coverage,” I asked in the first meeting. “Yes, this is Nepal, we are the biggest media house by far and these are our terms,” our Kantipur counterpart informed my colleague and me.
Arrogance is not a trait typically found in the collective character of the Nepalese. Any visitor to Nepal comes away with a sense of wonder at the majesty of its people and the grand scale and rugged beauty of its nature. In ten years and over 40 trips to Nepal, this was only the third Nepalese citizen I’d met who was arrogant. The first one was Kamal Thapa, at the time of our encounter the sitting foreign minister and deputy prime minister, and the second one the secretary of the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development, Kedar Adhikari.
Over the course of my visits and extended stays in Nepal, I had met every living ex-prime minister on more than one occasion, and had established a rapport with two of them to be on a first-name basis, although I always insisted addressing them by their title. In addition, countless business and banking tycoons, diplomats, stars of the Nepal film and music scenes, including the iconic Nepal-born Bollywood actress and granddaughter of Nepal’s former Prime Minister B.P. Koirala, Manisha Koirala, all displayed the characteristics that have made the Nepalese famous around the world. None of these luminaries were ever cold, unfriendly, or arrogant to me or towards anyone else in my presence. There must be something in the water in that distant valley in Nepal’s hinterland where these arrogant guys come from, I thought to myself. We left Kantipur’s modern office tower near the Bagmati river and made a mental note never to invite one of their representatives to our media events.
Almost two years later, Kantipur’s owner, Kailash Sirohiya, invited me to meet him at his office. “I read your book, Michael, it impressed me a lot. You really love Nepal,” Sirohiya said. “I also know about your troubles with our government. To get things done here is not easy for Nepalese and especially not for a foreigner. I want to help you.” Taken aback at the different approach to his colleagues a few floors below, I explained to Sirohiya that the expedition required more financial support in order to sustain the countless delays at the hands of unscrupulous Government of Nepal bureaucrats. “We don’t pay for sponsorships,” Sirohiya countered. “Yes, but you also don’t broadcast films for which you didn’t acquire the broadcast rights, this is the same kind of deal. Your guys will get to interview our expedition members and at the end of it we’ll provide you with two one-hour programs that you can broadcast on television. Nepal seldom gets Western celebrity visitors and when the celebrities do visit, like Leonardo DiCaprio, they tend to keep a very low profile and even use disguises.”
As with every other potential sponsor, I went to great lengths to explain to Kailash Sirohiya that certain personalities, such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Johnny Depp were friends of friends of mine and that I had never met them. I also explained that it was extremely unlikely that Rihanna or Gaga would ever join the expedition, but that their friends had informed them about the expedition and received assurances that they would use social media to support the expedition’s message: that Nepal is a safe destination and open for business. Yet other high-profile personalities had committed to joining the expedition in some form or another. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the English explorer, had withdrawn on medical grounds but indicated his willingness to join the group at the start or the finish.
Dealing with one high-profile individual can be wrought with complications enough. To coordinate the schedules of more than two dozen celebrities would require extraordinary planning, organization and luck. If luck were on the expedition’s side, I explained to every potential sponsor, then not only would most of the celebrities arrive in Nepal at the same time, but one or two of them they might also bring along another high-profile friend.
“There’s no way all of the people who agreed to be part of the expedition will actually come to Nepal at the same time. So there’s a chance we’ll have to do two or more expeditions. But to shepherd these individuals through Nepal and make them all feel comfortable in an exotic environment will be far easier than getting them to show up in a coordinated way,” I told Sirohiya. “But if you come on board as a media sponsor, we will make them available to your media outlets on a one-by-one basis. In addition, I will do my best to convince some of my friends to purchase advertisements from you.” Kantipur pondered this for a moment and said “let me ask my business affairs manager to come up for a moment.” A few minutes later, Sirohiya explained to this gentleman that Kantipur would support the fire truck expedition at no cost and that if there was a way for us to generate money for Kantipur, then Kantipur would pay the expedition.
Delighted to have gotten a verbal agreement from the owner of Nepal’s most powerful media organization, I began working on a plan to deliver quantifiable results that would convince Kantipur to make good on Sirohiya’s agreement to become a financial backer of the expedition. First, I granted Kantipur Television’s Good Morning Nepal an exclusive interview with Malcolm McDowell during Malcolm’s visit to Nepal. That happened two months after my meeting with Sirohiya. Next, I convinced another sponsor of the expedition, Tiger Palace Resort, to run ads in Kantipur-owned newspapers. My good friend Mike Bolsover founded Tiger Palace’s publicly listed parent company and incidentally had fallen victim to the same racket that Kantipur had made so popular in Nepal. One of Mike’s business partners, an unscrupulous man named Rajendra, had paid for several media organizations to run negative stories about Tiger Palace and Mike sought to contain the public relations damage by running a series of advertisements in various media outlets. Since Tiger Palace was already a sponsor of the fire truck expedition, it made sense to run ads in Kantipur publications, as this would demonstrate results to Kantipur.
Yet despite these actions, in several follow-up meetings with Kantipur’s business affairs manager, my colleagues and I were told the same thing as during our first meeting: “You have to pay us to cover your expedition, there’s no other way we’ll give you guys any money.” Two of my colleagues met alone with the Kantipur business team and came away with a sense of bewilderment. “I can’t believe things like that happen in my country,” said our young intern. “I am beginning to see why nothing works around here. It’s just insane. They were so rude to us and so cold.”
A few days later, the same Kantipur media affairs head who sat in at the end of my meeting with Kailash Sirohiya walked past my colleagues and me in a popular Kathmandu restaurant. My colleagues reminded me that this man had been so cold to them in their previous meeting. “Hi, nice to see you again, I’m sure you remember me,” I said as I extended my hand to greet the Kantipur business affairs head. “Of course, Michael, nice to meet you again.” “Listen, I hear that we’re back to square one, that you told my colleagues that you can’t pay us. But we delivered results, just as your boss and I had agreed. So now you’re not holding up your side of the bargain. Please, try to understand. I am sure you can do better than this. I’m going to host more celebrities in the coming months, but I can’t make them available to your people unless I see that you hold up your end of our agreement.” I was polite but firm and hoped that this would suffice to impress on the business affairs head that I was being sincere. No more free interviews unless you agree to sponsor the expedition.“I’ll see what I can do, take care,” the business affairs head said coolly and left.
The Kathmandu rumor mill had been abuzz with word of Kantipur Media Group’s highly successful extortion racket for years. The scheme was always the same. First, Kantipur would generate an overwhelming amount of bad publicity directed at the victim of the racket, then an intermediary would present a proposal to the victim with options to purchase various overpriced advertisement packages and drop a not-so-subtle hint that this financial commitment would suffice to stop the negative news coverage. Kantipur had made millions of dollars in this way and its victims included everyone from prime ministers and other high-ranking officials, to the country’s most successful business houses, banks, insurance companies, and even embassies of foreign governments.
After the Kathmandu Post began its smear campaign against me and the fire truck expedition, I contacted Kailash Sirohiya by email. At the time, I still assumed that the newly-hired editor-in-chief was an honorable man and had somehow gotten duped by people who have an agenda to undermine my credibility and to stop the expedition from happening. An ethical journalist doesn’t like to get facts wrong and tried hard not to fall victim to conspiracy theories. I felt it was important to alert Kailash Sirohiya and his new editor-in-chief at the Kathmandu Post, Anup Kaphle, and warn them that they were completely off-course in their reporting. To my delight, the first article contained a number of fabrications and misrepresentations for which I possessed a considerable amount of evidence.
It all started when I received an email from a Kathmandu Post reporter:
December 19, 2018
From: Tsering Gurung
To: Michael Kobold
Dear Mr Kobold,
My name is Tsering Gurung, and I am a reporter with The Kathmandu Post.
My colleague and I have been working on a story about your project the 'Nepal Firetruck Expedition' and your business, Kobold Watches Nepal.
Through our reporting we've found several discrepancies in your claims about both the project and your business.
Also, several people have come forward with allegations against you for non-payment of bills.
We would thus like to interview you so that we can hear your side of things.
I understand you are currently out of the country so I was wondering if I could speak to you over the phone, Skype or even email you some questions. Please let us know how we can reach you.
We are hoping to run the story in the next few days so it'd be great if we could interview you at the earliest.
Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Best, Tsering D. Gurung
Social Justice Reporter
The Kathmandu Post
The email was sent at 2:26 P.M. Nepal time. Three minutes later, I declined the interview request and referred the reporter to Deepak Joshi, the CEO of Nepal Tourism Board. Tsering replied:
Dear Mr Kobold,
Thanks for your prompt reply.
As a matter of fact, I've already interviewed Mr Joshi -- several times actually -- for this story.
Since our story is focused on serious financial discrepancies, we wanted to give you a chance to respond and to have your voice heard.
The expedition has been delayed for several years now but you've continued to raise funds for it through crowdfunding campaigns and sought government support. We'd like to know how you've been utilizing the funds so far since there's been little to show for it.
In a recent Facebook post you wrote that you had reached an agreement with the Danish shipping company Maesrk and the first five firetrucks would be shipped in December. We reached out to an official there who told us they contacted several colleagues across regions but none of them were aware of such an agreement. So, could you provide us your point of contact at the company or any documentation you may have backing up your claim.
Last year you signed an agreement with the NTB on behalf of the Soarway Institute for Development. We have not been able to find any evidence suggesting such an organization exists. We also reached out to your friend, Mr Scott H. Delisi of the Soarway Foundation to see if the two organizations were somehow related. Mr Delisi denied any links between the two. Could you tell us what the Soarway Institute for Development is and where is it based or if it's even registered?
We hope you choose to respond because as journalists we feel it's important to get both sides of the story.
We're available to speak with you anytime.
Best, Tsering D. Gurung
Social Justice Reporter
The Kathmandu Post
This email was sent at 4:10 P.M. Nepal time.
The next morning, the readers of the Kathmandu Post saw the following headline across the front page of the newspaper: Watchmaker promising fire trucks has as series of dodgy financial dealings and a checkered past
Newspapers take a long time to print, typically the cut-off time for major daily such as the Kathmandu Post is 3:00 P.M. It’s possible to push the deadline a bit, but anything after 5 P.M. is off-limits. It appeared to me that this was perhaps another attempt to compel me to pay money in exchange for favorable coverage. I publicly stated that Kantipur had asked my colleagues and me to pay for coverage and that we had declined. I couldn’t be certain if the reason for article had anything to do with the fact that we didn’t allow Kantipur the opportunity to interview Gabriella Wright, the Hollywood actress and Dior model, during her visit to Nepal a week earlier, but I had my suspicion.
Given the fact that over the course of several years I had amassed substantial evidence of Kantipur’s racketeering, I felt an urge to go into specifics via social media channels, but opted to think the matter over. A few days later, I decided to give Kantipur a chance to stop their campaign before retaliating and contacted the media house’s owner.
December 22, 2018
From: Michael Kobold
To: Kailash Sirohiya
Greetings from Europe!
I hope this finds you well.
I am sure you saw the article on the fire truck expedition in the Post. Not sure if you were made aware of this prior to printing...I assume that was not the case.
I have fond memories of our meeting a year ago. You invited me to your office and congratulated me on the hard work with regard to the fire truck expedition. We also spoke about the possibility of Kantipur becoming our official media outlet in return for exclusive coverage of all VIPs. I came away from the meeting feeling that you are a good person and keenly interested to help shore up Nepal’s fire safety standards.
After our meeting, my colleagues and I met with several representatives of your organization. In these meetings, these representatives directly asked us for payments in order for Kantipur Media Group to cover the fire truck expedition and the celebrities. We were astonished. One of our team members is a young woman by the name of XXXXXX XXXXXX , daughter of XXXXXX XXXXXX, the head of XXXXXXXXXX. XXXXXX was shocked by what she called “the arrogance of those corrupt journalists”. XXXXXX is 19 and an astute young woman. I reminded her that not everyone believes in the same ethics she has been taught and that we should never judge before reflecting on our own shortcomings. Still, the meeting was surprising for us all.
Because of the meeting between you and me, I felt it was no wise to get upset and thus I decided to not work with those journalists and with KMG. I also did not want to cause bad blood between KMG and the expedition out of respect for you, sir. Finally, I did not want to embarrass you by bringing this matter to your attention. My strategy was to simply ignore the situation and move on.
However, with the article in yesterday’s paper, I now have no other option but to defend myself. Please understand that I have worked for five years to make this expedition happen. My team and I have worked for three years on this project. It has been nothing by headaches but we continued nonetheless.
You told me in our meeting that you read parts of my book, Nepal Needs Fire Trucks. Can I please respectfully remind you that I paid for the first three fire trucks with my own money, that Arjun Karki -Nepal’s Ambassador in Washington- inspected the fire trucks, and that the former fire chief of Kathmandu did so as well.
I therefore kindly ask you to intervene in your organization in order to preempt any further negative reporting. I understand that this is a highly unusual request, since there is a strict separation between the business side and the reporting side. However, I also would like to remind you that this project is for the greater benefit of Nepal and in doing so you would do a service to your country.
I will get my fire trucks to Nepal one way or another, and I will clear my name. However, I would be most grateful to you for your kind assistance in ensuring that my name and my project are no longer attacked.
Very respectfully yours, Mike
I knew that Sirohiya was on good terms with our intern’s father, the head of a major conglomerate in Nepal and a member of the Indian-origin group which traditionally comprised traders from India. The conglomerate was a major advertiser client of Kantipur. Our intern’s father was very supportive of the fire truck expedition. Following his daughter’s experiences with Kantipur’s business affairs team and another matter in which a powerful person caused trouble for the expedition, he had offered good advice and made several phone calls to convince Maersk, the Danish shipping company, to be more positively inclined in its handling of our project. Therefore, it seemed likely to me that Sirohiya would intervene before another article appeared. This was imperative because after months of carefully negotiating with the expedition’s main sponsor, the Nepal Tourism Board, and with Maersk, we were days away from signing an amended contract that would make the shipment of the fire trucks possible within a few weeks.
December 23, 2018
From: Kailash Sirohiya
To: Michael Kobold