Updated: Jul 26, 2019
“Mr. Kobold is a friend of the president, please give him an all access pass,” Bill Clinton’s aide said to the security officer, matter-of-factly. It was February 2016 and my mission was to brief President Clinton on the situation in Nepal. Over the past four months, I had used every relevant contact in my database to try to connect Nepal’s ambassador in Washington, Dr. Arjun Karki, with a number of former U.S. presidents. This was part of a greater effort to build an alliance of influencers who would lobby India’s government to lift its blockade against Nepal. A previous effort to connect Ambassador Karki with President Clinton had failed, and I therefore took the opportunity to personally make an impression on the intrepid retiree about the problems Nepal was facing - and to ask for his support in a secret plan to lift the blockade.
To classify me as a friend of the former president was certainly an exaggeration on the part of the helpful aide. This was not the first time I had heard someone make such a remark, however, and therefore dismissed it as just another effort to humor me. A few years earlier, President Clinton had been extremely helpful after I contacted him following my friend James Gandolfini’s passing in Rome. President Clinton and I were acquainted well enough that in my desperation I knew how to get a hold of the former world leader. Now I had to again ask the former president for a big favor, albeit this time to bail out an entire nation and not one man’s remains. “Nepal is on the president’s bucket list,” the aide informed me, “he’s always wanted to go and visit.”
Three and a half years later, after Malcolm McDowell – an actual friend of Bill Clinton – had visited me in Nepal, President Clinton’s team and I began working on a plan for him to visit the Himalayan nation. This effort was well underway when I had to hastily depart Nepal, following warnings issued by a number of Nepalese officials about a counter-espionage investigation underway at the behest of the Indian embassy in Kathmandu. “Leave now,” one of them said, “don’t wait.” With all the work my colleagues and I did during the blockade, I never imagined that one day I’d have to flee the country I love - or otherwise risk my personal safety. The planned February 2016 meeting with President Clinton was just one of many initiatives I took to support Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Oli and Ambassador Karki during the blockade.
“He even looks like a mafia boss,” someone commented about Kailash Sirohiya, the burly chairman of Kantipur Media Group. Earlier, I had set up a poll on Instagram asking users to vote on whether the Indian-born entrepreneur was a media boss or a mafia boss. Even my team and I were surprised when the poll ended and revealed that 91% of respondents voted “mafia boss”. One of my colleagues suggested that the picture we used for the poll was biased. The comment someone posted, claiming that Sirohiya “looks like a mafia boss,” supported the assertion that the picture might carry an unfair bias. “But that’s what the guy looks like in real life,” I protested. After meeting Sirohiya on a number of occasions at the Hyatt Regency and in his office in Kathmandu, I was certain that the picture accurately depicts the man. “Okay, so let’s run another poll sometime in the future,” I said, knowing that the Roast the Postcampaign would continue for some time.
It didn’t take long for the right opportunity to present itself to launch a new poll. In the course of several previous spats, The Kathmandu Post’s young editor-in-chief, Anup Kaphle, had betrayed his inexperience by making a number of tactical errors. One of the main objectives of the Roast the Post campaign was to prompt Kaphle to publicly defend his newspaper’s reputation and his own journalistic integrity. Just according to plan, soon Anup Kaphle’s newspaper issued several clarifications – the headlines read “The Kathmandu Post’s response to Michael Kobold”. However, this was garden variety stuff by comparison to an article that appeared on 17 July, 2019, aptly titled “Without Fear or Favor - The Kathmandu Post’s next chapter”. In an evaluation of Anup Kaphle’s writings, a psychologist might point to the use of the words fear and favor as being Freudian slips.
“The editor seems to be haunted,” a distant member of Nepal’s royal family wrote to me after the article was published. “That’s because Roast the Post is working,” I responded. Indeed, as if on command, in his editorial, Anup Kaphle issued a bold defense of the Kathmandu Post, first by reminding readers of the fact that Nepal’s biggest English-language newspaper looks on a 26-year-long history: For all these years, the Post has asked for accountability and transparency, not just from those in government but from everyone with power and influence. This, of course, did not address the complete lack of accountability and transparency of the Kathmandu Post’s many illegal and unethical actions, or that of its parent company, Kantipur.
Another fantastic Freudian slip could be found further down the page: now is an extraordinarily rich time to be in journalism. It is plausible that in this sentence, Anup Kaphle indirectly made reference to the many years of extortion and racketeering of which Kantipur has been guilty and which enriched its owner, Kailash Sirohiya. Indeed, according to sources, including a number of former and current Kantipur employees and managers, the media house pioneered the method to extract protection payments from corporations, politicians and foreign embassies fearful of bad publicity.
For years, I had heard stories of Kantipur’s racket. “They got close to a million from Ncell alone,” an insider told me. Later, ex-Ncell officials privately confirmed that Kantipur’s chairman, Kailash Sirohiya, had two trusted co-conspirators high up inside Nepal’s biggest telecom. “Ncell was washing money for Nepal’s politicians, especially for Maoists,” an intelligence officer informed me. “When they came up for sale, because things got hot, that’s when Kantipur struck,” this source said. “You can imagine when a huge company is up for sale and bad press starts flying like bullets in a war,” another source told me, “everyone just wanted things to keep quiet.”
A third source provided a detailed sequence of events, as well as the names of the two Kantipur co-conspirators who worked in Ncell’s middle management. “There’s a 70-page dossier on the one subject and another big report on the other,” this individual stated, “but the old ownership wanted things to remain quiet before the sale finalized, so no action was taken on the bigger of the two culprits. Only one of them was terminated.” A highly placed government source in Washington familiar with the goings-on in Nepal confirmed some of these stories to me. I asked each of these sources if they would speak to a reporter from the New York Times and repeat the statements they had made to me. To my surprise, every individual agreed to do so, provided that their identities would not be made public.
“Why is this Kathmandu Post stuff so important to you,” one of Hollywood’s most respected film and television producers asked me, “why did you go to war against a newspaper?” The answer to these questions is simple. As the son of a journalist –my mother was a section editor of a newspaper in Frankfurt- I grew up with a deep respect for journalists. Mama Kobold, as my friends call her with affection, had been roommates with one of the granddaughters of William Randolph Hearst, the media tycoon and inspiration for the film Citizen Kane. In his heyday, Hearst amassed a network of radio stations and a stable of newspapers across the United States. He and his editors held enormous powers, because they could effectively destroy someone’s reputation in a so-called New York Minute. As is well established, Old Man Hearst was not always ethical in his dealings. Growing up, Mama Kobold told us cautionary tales of Mr. Hearst’s transgressions and escapades. This was one way in which I learned about the importance of journalism, as well as of how things can go terribly wrong if the media has absolute power.
Inspired by these stories and by my mother’s career, I decided to start my elementary school’s newspaper and hired Mama Kobold as my first employee. When I asked my mother to include an embarrassing rumor about the school’s gym teacher in the next edition, my usually cheerful mother grew stern. “You have to be careful, things like that don’t belong in a newspaper.” I was only seven or eight years old, but I somehow convinced my mother to include the rumor. When that particular issue came out –reproduced on my father’s company’s black-and-white photo copying machine, a novelty at the time- I discovered that a great many readers were put off by the fact that I printed an unsubstantiated rumor. Mama Kobold was right, I learned, and never made that mistake again.
Yet despite receiving written warning about major inaccuracies in the Kathmandu Post’s original article on me, both Kailash Sirohiya and Anup Kaphle, the Post’s editor-in-chief, continued with their smear campaign against me and the fire truck expedition. One article after another appeared, almost always on the front page and across the entire top section, or even over the fold, repeating unsubstantiated claim after unsubstantiated claim. While he oversaw this smear campaign, Anup Kaphle could not have known that I would one day use everything Mama Kobold taught me in order to turn the tables on him, his newspaper, and his boss.
“So you think you’re going to win this war,” my producer friend in Hollywood asked me. “I will, no doubt about it. I have evidence for everything. Every one of Kantipur’s crimes…there’s multiple witnesses. I wouldn’t put this in writing if I didn’t cross my t’s and dot my i’s beforehand.” Such due diligence is something that evidently neither Anup Kaphle nor his team of so-called investigative journalists did before publishing their great many articles about my supposed wrong-doing. Yet in today’s media landscape, where the term fake news is common currency in heated debates about every topic ranging from politics to climate change, such attention to detail is critical in order to preserve a news organization’s respectability and relevance. Thanks to the Roast the Post campaign, which for the first time publicly exposed Kantipur Media Group’s and the Kathmandu Post’s illegal actions, Anup Kaphle realized that his newspaper respectability would gradually expire. This is precisely what prompted Anup Kaphle to publish his Editor’s Note.
At a time when trust in the news media continues to decline, at home and abroad, we will practice our journalism with dignity, with earnestness, and honesty. We will write and report without fear or favour. Kaphle goes on to invoke Adolph Ochs, the former New York Times publisher, who coined the phrase. Adolph would be spinning in his grave if he knew who had misappropriated his famous line, I wrote to a friend in Nepal who was equally amused by the article.
Anup Kaphle’s outpouring of journalistic wisdom, extolled in Without Fear or Favor, was indicative that the many revelations contained in the Roast the Post campaign and in the series of articles published under The Nepal Controversies, had caused him and his boss some serious concern. Much more revealing of the sense of panic that has overcome the top brass of the Kantipur Media Group, however, are the Kathmandu Post’s new editorial guidelines. Only a few days before these guidelines were published, a Kantipur insider informed me that Anup Kaphle had been deputized to do serious damage control and save his newspaper’s reputation. The new editorial guidelines are damning proof of this effort to whitewash the sordid past of the Kathmandu Post.
Published under the inadvertently comical headline “Editorial Standards and Integrity”, these guidelines include a great many rhetorical jewels for those readers who are familiar with Kantipur’s scheme of extorting protection payments from its victims.
In direct refutation of a written statement published in Roast the Post –a screen shot of a message to me from a key witness of Kailash Sirohiya’s intervention in an ongoing smear campaign- the first amusing guideline reads: Our duty is to the truth, the community and our readers—not to private business interests, our owners or our advertisers. In fact, Kailash Sirohiya has repeatedly intervened in the editorial process of the Kathmandu Post and other Kantipur outlets. A Kantipur Television producer once told me "I have to ask my boss before we can attack any politicians. We always have to get permission first."
Kantipur's modus operandi is as follows: Once Sirohiya personally signs off on negative reporting, he then halts the smear campaign in an effort to show his power. Then, Kantipur business development liaison approaches the victim –a corporation, politician or embassy- with a highly lucrative contract to run advertisements with Kantipur. This was confirmed to me by a former Kantipur employee who now resides in the United States and has agreed, on the condition of anonymity, to repeat this assertion to other journalists. I made this public as part of Roast the Post. Anup Kaphle countered these claims by adding the following line to his newspaper’s new set of guidelines: The Kathmandu Post will not allow any relationship with an advertising agency or an advertiser to affect the Post’s editorial integrity.
Particularly ironic in light of Kantipur’s extensive smear campaign against me and the fire truck expedition, another guidelines reads: We shall make every effort to reach out to the concerned parties—individuals and organisations—whenever another party makes a claim against them. Yet in actual fact, I was only contacted by a Kathmandu Post reporter less than three hours before the newspaper went to print with a front-page, above-the-fold story that -by the Post’s own admission- had been researched for a month. This assertion in itself, however, is a lie, because the investigation spanned over two months. Directly countering the many allegations of operating a protection payment racket –a Kantipur practice that is commonly known in Nepal, including by current and former Kantipur staff and management-level employees- the guidelines further state: Our reporters and editors do not accept any gifts, honorariums, free junkets or any other form of compensation that could potentially harm the integrity of our reporting.
One of the main complaints I personally leveled against the Kathmandu Post on a number of occasions, is that the newspaper has plagiarized by reproducing a copyrighted image of me taken by a professional photographer. The photographer, Prasant Shrestha, is well-renowned in Nepal and has had his work exhibited on a number of occasions, including recently at a star-studded exhibition at the Nepal Tourism Board. Prasant is a personal friend of mine and has collaborated with me on a project evidencing a string of incidents involving arson that plaque Nepal. Crediting Prasant’s work would be de rigueur for a serious newspaper. Despite repeated requests, including to Anup Kaphle directly, the Kathmandu Post, however, has continued to print the picture without giving any credit –or without even asking for permission to print it! Hence, the following guideline was the source of particular levity among my team: The Kathmandu Post does not tolerate plagiarism in any form. We believe in journalistic integrity and providing credit whenever it is due. All our sources will be clearly labelled.
Only a few days before the new guidelines of the Kathmandu Post appeared, South Asia Check, an independent journalism watch dog, released a report indicating that Kantipur and the Kathmandu Post are the top two news organizations in Nepal in terms of their use of anonymous sources for their stories. Reputable news organizations quote their sources whenever possible. As the Roast the Post campaign has asserted repeatedly, Nepal does have a number of very reputable news organizations who use unnamed sources only sparingly. This is why it is surprising that a young journalist like Anup Kaphle, would agree to leave prestigious posts in western news outlets, in order to join the famously shady Kantipur Media Group.
Due to the fact that a number of former and current Kantipur employees have expressed their fear of violence -“from Sirohiya’s goons” as one ex-Kantipur worker said- The Nepal Controversies only includes names of sources if there is no likelihood of retribution from Kantipur, or if the source specifically requested anonymity. However, I have made these names available to other journalists after obtaining permission from the sources. Much like in its other unethical dealings, Kantipur, however, operates by its own set of rules. It is therefore that Anup Kaphle felt compelled to add this line to his new guidelines: We will make all effort to obtain information “on the record.” But as this is not always possible, we will make all effort to make certain that the source is being truthful and accurate. In terms of documenting its smear campaign against me, the second sentence is critical. A number of the sources the Post used to compile its stories not only were not truthful. Far worse, it would have taken only a small amount of research to determine that the sources were lying.
Best of all, however, because it drew the most laughs, is the following guideline: The Kathmandu Post publishes fiction and poetry on literary and artistic merit on a weekly basis.
Of the dozens of allegations leveled against me, considerable exculpatory evidence exists that would have caused any serious news organization to pause and reconsider before going on a war path against the fire truck expedition and against me. However, the Kathmandu Post does not operate like a normal news organization. It is widely known in Nepal that Kantipur acts as the mouthpiece of the Indian embassy, particularly its powerful intelligence organization, Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). Behind the scenes, R&AW helped orchestrate a deal by which the powerful Times of India news organization purchased a 20% stake in Kantipur.
According to several witnesses, the Indian ambassador to Nepal himself recruited a member of Nepal’s nobility, a gentleman by the name of Gautam “G2” Rana (who is also known as Royal Rana for his self-styled royal heritage), to approach Kantipur with information for its smear campaign against me. This, following repeated thwarted attempts by R&AW to sabotage the fire truck expedition, which was within a hair’s breadth of becoming reality, just in the moment that G2 “Royal” Rana approached Kantipur. Furthermore, the smear campaign coincided with the run-up to the Indian general election at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was performing so poorly, that observers had largely written him off. My team and I had spent years assembling highly damaging information proving Modi’s guilt in crimes against humanity in both Nepal –during the secret blockade- and in India –during his tenure as chief minister of the state of Gujarat. The release of this film might have played a small part in further harming Modi’s standing - sufficiently so to cause him to lose the election.
As for the timing of Anup Kaphle’s ill-conceived editorial guidelines, it is worthwhile to read Part 10 of The Nepal Controversies, which appeared only four days before Kaphle’s Without Fear or Favor.
“I will never ask you another favor,” I told Bill Clinton by phone, grateful for his personal support. The former president had called me to inquire if I needed any more help following the successful repatriation of James Gandolfini’s remains from Rome to New Jersey. “Oh, don’t mention it, Mike. Come up in a few days’ time after things settled down for you. I want to give you a watch that Jim gave me. I want you to give it to his son.”
This conversation was on my mind when I made a request to meet President Clinton in order to discuss the situation in Nepal.
Unfortunately, due to scheduling problems, a meeting that had been set up earlier ended up falling through. Franklin Graham’s Fox News interview with Greta Van Susteren had just been broadcast during prime time, causing a mild tremor in the halls of South Block, where bureaucrats tasked with the bilateral relations with Nepal were astonished that their secret and illegal blockade had become the subject of a top prime time news show in America. It was the height of the U.S. election primary and to make room for a segment on little Nepal was a major coup, one I was –and continue to be- quite proud to have orchestrated. However, the Fox News piece was just a warm-up to a much bigger plan, namely to coordinate between the Trump and Clinton campaigns to address India’s blockade.
I’m going to break my promise to you, but it’s for a good cause, I nervously repeated in my mind, ready to deliver the line on meeting the former president. Fortunately, I never had to deliver that line, because just in that moment, a top Government of Nepal official called me from Kathmandu via Signal, a secure messaging and telephony application. I knew from friends in the intelligence community that R&AW was using signal intelligence to intercept all calls to and from the Nepalese prime minister’s office and residence, as well as from Nepal’s embassy in Washington. When I advised Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Oli and his team of this, they shrugged their shoulders and said “keh garne” or what to do. However, when I explained to them how secure Signal is, the Nepalese officials were united in their delight to finally be able to outmaneuver the Indian spy service. We had established a protocol for our conversations: calls would be placed via Signal -from outside a building or vehicle- whenever R&AW wasn’t meant to know what’s going on. Calls using a regular phone line or cell phone would be used whenever we did want R&AW to know our conversations. This would give us a tactical advantage over our adversaries.
During the campaign to get Nepal into the list of topics discussed in the presidential primary, we repeatedly communicated via regular phone service in order to alert R&AW of our plan, hoping that it would lead the Indian government to lift the blockade sooner. A great many other efforts –both diplomatic and covert- were underway to convince the Indian leadership to lift the blockade, and the PR stunts my team and I were working on were more like fruit flies by comparison. But fruit flies can be extremely annoying in their persistence. Yet this relentlessness was required because it was already February and according to a senior Nepalese medical expert, thousands of people in the Himalayas had died due to hypothermia. Millions more were freezing because of the lack of cooking gas.
The blockade began right after the deadly monsoon season, during which large swaths of land are submerged every year. Only a few months earlier, the country had been hit by the two worst natural disasters in its history – a magnitude 7.8 and 7.1 earthquake. The blockade was not only illegal, by violating UN law, it was cruel, inhumane and very deadly. Month’s earlier, Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Oli had tasked me with one job: to expose the blockade in as public a manner as possible. In order to accomplish this goal, I was prepared to leave behind my family, my ailing watch company and my beloved farm in Pennsylvania. I was also willing to break my promise to one of three men who helped me get my best friend’s remains home – President William J. Clinton.
Looking at my phone, I saw that the call from Nepal came in via Signal. It was late at night in Kathmandu. Receiving a call via Signal at this time meant that something urgent needed to be discussed. I picked up and repeated the secret passcode to indicate that the call was secure. “Mike!” the government official said excitedly, “they are going to lift the blockade. It’s only a matter of days. Things are already moving again at the border.” I was excited for two reasons, first because the suffering of millions of Nepalese would soon end. Second, because I didn’t have to break my promise to President Clinton.
Following the publication of the Kathmandu Post’s new guidelines, I decided the time was right to conduct another poll about Kailash Sirohiya, arguably Nepal’s most famous mafia boss. In the style of William Randolph Hearst and Citizen Kane, Sirohiya had amassed a media conglomerate, which includes radio stations, newspaper, as well as a television station. Kantipur is the only outfit in Nepal that has all three bases covered. Sirohiya had also amassed a vast amount of wealth through illegal machinations including extortion and money laundering.
The previous poll’s 91% result indicating that Sirohia is a mafia boss was not flattering for the Indian-Nepalese. One could argue that the unflattering picture used on Instagram compelled such a strong response. Hence, we came up with a novel way to expose Sirohiya with more credibility. First, we limited the poll to people from Nepal – both expats living abroad and those living in Nepal. Then we asked each respondent to identify Kailash Sirohiya by his first and last name. After that, respondents had to identify what Sirohiya owns (it could be anything…a car, a house, or Kantipur Media Group). Finally, users could vote between media boss and mafia boss.
Surprisingly, all respondents correctly identified Sirohiya by his first and last name and as the owner of Kantipur Media Group. 87% voted “mafia boss” – a damning statistic for someone whose editor-in-chief just published a series of fantastical claims about his organization’s ethics.
Much like the Fox News segment about India’s illegal blockade of Nepal was only a warm-up exercise for the execution of a much greater plan, the Roast the Post campaign is currently in its warm-up phase. A book, a Hollywood production (either a film or a mini-series) and far more damaging allegations against Kailash Sirohiya and Anup Kaphle are in the works. A small but dedicated team is working on these projects in Nepal, the United States and in Europe.
We are also working on something almost as fun as Roast the Post: the fire truck expedition to Nepal. In time, we will make an announcement that will take many people by great surprise.
Click on the link below for Part 12 of The Nepal Controversies: