Updated: Jul 25, 2019
In order to improve his news conglomerate’s public image, Kantipur's owner, Kailash Sirohiya, hired Anup Kaphle as the Kathmandu Post’s editor-in-chief in August 2018. Only 34 years of age, Kaphle had done stints with Al Jazeera and the Washington Post and recently worked as a freelancer for an award-winning lifestyle blog. Quite why someone who has been able to build a career at one of the U.S.’s stalwarts of investigative journalism would return to Nepal to head a famously corrupt news organization such as TKP is not easy to understand. "Anup is a nice guy, I don't know why he got involved with the Sirohiya clan," said one Kantipur colleague, "they must pay him extremely well. I'm sure they do. Everybody has a price, especially in this town."
Firmly pressed into the back of her seat by the thrust generated from two Rolls-Royce Trent 700 engines, Dior model and Hollywood actress Gabriella Wright glanced out of the large business class window of a brand new Turkish Airlines Airbus A330-200. Below, the Boudhanath Stupa passed by, as did the majestic Hyatt Regency. A devout Buddhist, Gabriella mumbled a prayer before giving a long Namaste. “Well, this must be a relief for you,” the actress sighed. Moments earlier, as the airliner hurdled down Kathmandu’s pothole-riddled runway, I confided in the unsuspecting mother and humanitarian about the real reason why I had asked her to meet me in Kathmandu barely a week earlier.
“That large leather case I asked you to carry when we left the Hyatt,” I said, pointing to the overhead bin above us, “there are a bunch of hard drives in there with some big secrets on them.” Gabriella’s jaw dropped. “Nice, so you made me come all the wait here to be your mule,” she laughed without missing a beat.
I knew Gabriella was good for the job. Nothing phases this girl, I thought, when, in my desperation to smuggle the trove of information out of Nepal undetected by Indian R&AW sympathizers, I had asked Gabriella to fly from New York to Kathmandu on a few days’ notice. In what must qualify as the most last-minute film production, the official reason for her visit was to star in a documentary film about the ancient trade routes of the Himalayas. A quirky German Tibetologist, permanently dressed as if had just stepped left the set of a late 18th Century period movie, Christopher Giercke, had agreed to lead the expedition. Thomas Kelly, a renowned National Geographic photographer, and mountain guide Tsering Sherpa completed the hastily thrown-together cast. Aside from two German embassy officials, our expedition was quietly tailed by a security detachment. “Is that why all those Army guys shadowed us the whole time,” Gabriella asked, as the Airbus circled over Kathmandu, gaining enough altitude to safely pass over the mountains.
Over the years, I had taken several hard drives with information out of Nepal, each time using a number of friends to carry the material through the airport. I deposited the troves with my attorneys, and entrusted a few journalist friends with the map to make sense of the information. After receiving a number of warnings over the years, I wasn’t about to get caught with all of the information in one place, or on my person. This would be my last trip out of Nepal for a while, I realized, and was naturally relieved when our Turkish flight took off. In the weeks before Gabriella’s arrival, the frequency and the nature of the warnings I received changed dramatically. “Get out of here, now, before it’s too late,” a close friend with deep ties in Nepal’s political and intelligence circles told me. “Michael, we are here to help you with anything you need, you know that, it’s not a problem. But please also know that Nepal might not be safe for you right now,” a Nepalese Army friend said. I had earned the trust and respect from a handful of senior military officials in Nepal as a result of the work I did during the blockade. While the Indian and Nepalese armies work hand-in-hand, there is a profound sense of patriotism among the Nepalese ranks.
When a number of other people also warned me about staying in Nepal, I turned to my trusted Nepalese Army friends. “If you need to vanish, we will make it happen,” a general said confidently. For many years I welcomed my visiting guests directly at the aircraft door on arrival and was accustomed to having officials escort me through the airport during my own travels. A recent change in the airport’s rules made it more difficult to obtain airport passes, especially the ones with ramp access, but with the right contacts, I was soon able to once again make my way through the airport unhindered. We even obtained permission for our camera crew to film Manisha Koirala and Malcolm McDowell at the door of Malcolm’s arriving Turkish flight, as well as on the tarmac in front of the plane – virtually unheard of in filmmaking circles. The fire truck expedition and Nepal Tourism Board made all this possible, as NTB’s request letters gave airport and Nepalese Army officials cover with which to act. “As long as we have a letterhead with an official stamp on the top, we can do almost anything,” an airport official told me.
I had maintained ties with officials of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal for many years in order to facilitate special requests. As part of the preparations for the fire truck expedition, a team of us worked on a plan to film an incoming Turkish Airlines plane using a chase plane. This would enable us to capture visually stunning footage of the plane passing by the Himalayas. Filming a plane inflight with passengers on board requires extraordinary coordination between the airline headquarters, the airliner’s flight crew, the flight controllers on the ground, the chase plane crew, as well as the team on the ground weaving all the strands together in the tower. Once on the ground, the Turkish Airlines Airbus would receive a water cannon salute by the Kathmandu Airport fire department. This and the flight sequence would eventually make for beautiful scenes of the arrival of various fire tuck expedition team members.
Turkish Airlines had provisionally agreed to sponsor the expedition with free tickets for the expedition’s VIPs and crew. The chief pilot of the airline, Captain Levent, was part of the discussions and we intended to have Levent fly at least some of our VIPs to Kathmandu. In Istanbul, Turkish Airlines pilots and flight simulator technicians experimented until a safe flight envelope was established for the chase-plane sequence. The altitude, terrain and weather conditions unique to flying in the Himalayas all factored into these calculations. To have the world’s largest airline throwing its weight behind the expedition, albeit still in an unofficial manner until the fire trucks arrived in Nepal, was a significant boost to the project’s credibility. Turkish Airlines’ country manager in Nepal, a jovial fellow named Abdullah, was a firm supporter of the expedition. Previously, Turkish backed several other tourism-related projects I invented, including The Adventures of Maiko McDonald -the film with Manisha Koirala and Malcolm McDowell- and Ancient Trade Routes of the Himalayas, the documentary starring Gabriella Wright and Christopher Giercke, the eccentric Tibetologist/filmmaker and cashmere producer.
On our way to Istanbul, I explained to Gabriella what had occurred in Nepal prior to her arrival. “I was concerned that they’d stop me from leaving the country,” I said. Shortly before we headed to the airport, I received an all-clear message from someone at the Nepalese Army who ran my details through the computer system. “One of my guys will be there with an airport pass, these guys over there will follow your car. If anything changes I’ll let you know,” the official said, standing in the parking lot of the Hyatt. By this time, I had become familiar with all of the Army staff at the airport and had built a good rapport with almost all of them. The tricky part was making sure no-one alerted the immigration officers that I was planning on leaving Nepal. It was for this reason, also, that I asked Gabriella to fly to Nepal. By maintaining my usual routine of escorting arriving VIPs from the plane through the airport to the car, and in the reverse order on their departure, I would not arise any suspicion by heading to the airport.
In one of the few factual statements the Kathmandu Post reported about me and the expedition, I used a number of passports to fly in and out of Nepal. This, in itself, is not illegal. I did, however, on one previous occasion exceed the number of days a foreigner is permitted to remain in Nepal. This visa overstay is not a major problem, as long as one pays the daily overstay fee plus a processing fee, a normal procedure in Nepal. “We don’t want hippies and gangsters,” Nepal’s then-chief of immigration explained to me one day. I had visited the man on several occasions during and after the blockade in order to extend my visas. The official was of the ruling political party at the time, and we soon discovered that we had a number of friends in common. The official was familiar with the two-passport trick and said that I would at most get a fine for overstaying. “If you have problem, you come to me,” the official said. “Take my mobile number. Can I add you on Facebook?” I was always surprised by how easily certain things are accomplished in Nepal, while other things, particularly ones that are straightforward anywhere else, are virtually impossible.
On the occasion of Gabriella’s and my departure, however, I carried a valid business visa, the result of a new immigration chief being in power. This man had berated me for overstaying my visa and threatened to throw me in jail. “You foreigners think you can do what you want,” the man yelled at me. “No, sir, much the opposite,” I said. “I got permission from your predecessor, Mr. XXXXXXX.” This did not appease the angry official, who I later learned was a Maoist. The Maoist bureaucrats were also in charge of the ministry that threatened Namgel and Thundu Sherpa during the Everest rock controversy. The experience left a bitter taste in my mouth. Years later, another Maoist, the former chief secretary –the highest-ranking bureaucrat- verbally assailed me at one of the many embassy functions. A good friend from USAID witnessed the exchange. “He’s a Maoist, that’s why he reacted that way.”
One of the concerns I had during the drive to the airport was whether some Maoist might sit at the immigration desk and cause problems. “If something happens, my guys will get you out of trouble, you then go through the VIP area using an airport ID,” the Nepalese Army official had assured me. A few days earlier, a number of Army officials accompanied us through the domestic airport on our way to our chartered plane that took us to our destination in the Himalayas. Two unsuspecting friends from the German embassy accompanied us in a purely private capacity. Later, I informed them of my growing unease about the warnings I received. “Seems like you have the right people on your side,” one of the diplomats remarked, remembering the sight of half a dozen Army officers guiding our group through the domestic terminal. A plainclothes police official also present had assured me that if there were any negative developments in Kathmandu, we’d receive a warning. “Nobody will find you up there,” he said, “just do your thing and then leave.”
Through this police official, as well as through an Army contact, I had learned that not only was a counter-espionage investigation underway –a result of prodding by Indian embassy officials- but also that a team of reporters from the Kathmandu Post had been asking people many questions. My concern with respect to the Kathmandu Post was twofold. First, I was in the final rounds of negotiations with the Nepal Tourism Board and Maersk to finally ship the fire trucks. Second, negative publicity by the country’s largest and most powerful newspaper would alert the famously jittery Nepalese officials about me. They would have to act in one way or another if the pressure applied by the Indians and the Kathmandu Post became too strong.
Over the years I had heard countless stories of foreigners getting arrested for the most ridiculously flimsy allegations. For example, Nepal immigration officials once received an anonymous tip that one of my friends' passport was forged. This individual is not only engaged to a German diplomat but also a member of considerable social standing in Kathmandu’s expat community. Within hours, my friend found himself in an overcrowded jail cell in the basement of the immigration building, where he and his daughter were held for three days, before British embassy officials convinced their Nepalese counterparts that the passport in question was genuine. I also heard stories of people getting arrested at the airport even after they passed through immigration. “We have our guys at the airport, if someone tries to leave, we have ways of getting them back,” a high-profile businessman told me after I overhead him on call about someone having just been apprehended on his way to the airport.
As Gabriella, our friend Tsering and I pulled out of the Hyatt, I reminded myself that Murphy’s law states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. This certainly appeared to be the case. First, the Army vehicle that was supposed to tail us got separated as soon as we turned onto the main road outside the Hyatt. Next, a huge traffic jam –complete gridlock- prevented us to continue past the Bhatbatheni supermarket about 50 meters from the Hyatt. After a few minutes of standing still, I realized that this unusually heavy traffic might have something to do with the arrival of Nepal’s president from a trip she’d taken to Qatar. If they already shut down the route from the airport to the presidential palace, we’re fucked, I thought. Glancing in the rearview mirror to spot the Army Suzuki, I realized that the two men inside were not prepared to lead the way in a breach of the presidential motorcade. A text message from Abdullah, the Turkish Airlines manager, warning that traffic was very bad and that we needed to take an alternate route, added considerable pressure.
Gabriella became visibly nervous. “What if we miss our flight,” she asked. This was all the encouragement I needed to make a judgement call. Thus began a driving maneuver that would soon become a trend in Nepal: the breach of the presidential motorcade. Over the years, my Western friends and I had observed a curious routine that preceded each VIP movement. First, hundreds of Nepal Police officers were deployed along the route the VIP motorcade would take. Standing on either side of the street 25 meters apart, these uniformed officers would give any terrorist intent on taking action against the VIP convoy a firm idea of the route the procession would take. Ironically, once these officers blocked all traffic along the route, much of Kathmandu would come to a standstill, making it impossible for the motorcade to take an alternative route in case of an emergency, such as during an assassination attempt. Traffic could be stopped for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. Fortunately, the Nepalese are very forgiving people, so even murderers and international criminals like India’s prime Minister Narendra Modi could safely drive through Kathmandu without even a single rotten egg being hurled into the direction of his vehicle.
The more immediate problem, especially for the three of us in our green Range Rover, was that Abdullah’s Airbus was going to depart without Gabriella and me. Steering the Range Rover into oncoming traffic, I accelerated and signaled the other vehicles to move to the side. This worked all the way to the main intersection, where we took a left and headed down past Pashupati Temple and onto the airport. The Army Suzuki, with its two stunned occupants, followed us for some distance, but by the time we reached the airport, the vehicle was nowhere in sight. “You’re gonna be so bored driving in Europe,” Gabriella said, delighted that our maneuver worked. Unbeknownst to me, Tsering filmed the scene from the backseat. Months later, after the video had gone viral, the brave motorists of the Kathmandu Valley began a series of similar maneuvers when stuck in a VIP roadblock for 45 minutes. Always leave a place in a better condition than you found it, Jack Roseman, my Carnegie Mellon University entrepreneurship professor, once told me.
Once at the airport, things went a lot more smoothly. Unbeknownst to Gabriella, several plainclothes Army officers followed us through the airport. At the immigration counter, two of their number stood on either side, observing us get processed. Gabriella had no idea about the contents of the leather case I had asked her to carry in her carry-on bag. Once in Istanbul, our ways would part, with Gaby flying on to Los Angeles while I headed to safety in my native Germany. Sticking the hard drives in her checked luggage would mean she’d have to return the hard drives to me via UPS.
After we both cleared passport control, Abdullah greeted us at the gate. “Michael, when will you be back, I see you have an open return,” Abdullah asked. My ticket was issued just hours earlier. “Let’s see, first I need to sort something out back home,” I said. Right before we boarded the plane, I handed Abdullah the keys to the green Range Rover. “What is this,” the oversized, baklava connoisseur said, smiling, “I get your car while you’re gone?” As Abdullah would only discover after our flight was airborne and the plane’s inflight Wifi system came online, the green Range Rover was parked outside the VIP entrance, with Tsering Sherpa still inside, waiting for me to come out of the airport. “Michael-dai, are you not coming back,” Tsering wrote when she found out that I was on the plane. I will be back, but only once the damn fire trucks make it in-country, I thought.
An hour later, while lunching on delectable Turkish food aboard the flight bound for Istanbul, Gabriella Wright seemingly enjoyed my explanation about what setbacks the fire truck expedition had suffered. “You should write a book,” Gabriella said. “Better yet, make a movie, this stuff is fascinating.” I wasn’t so sure, but relieved to be safely airborne, I was in a far more jovial mood than days earlier. “They don’t believe anything I said, especially not the stuff about Lady Gaga,” I laughed, “they even asked me for proof that the friend I share with her exists. And then they were so stupid to contact Gaga’s camp,” I said. The Nepal Tourism Board had asked me for verification that the various expedition members had signed on. Lady Gaga was the most high-profile would-be participant in the marketing campaign surrounding the expedition, and there was only a very slim chance that she would ever make the trip to Nepal. “Just wait, this will all be in the newspaper soon,” I said. What I didn’t realize, was just how soon the first article would be printed.
Those who expected Anup Kaphle to lead the Kathmandu Post into a new direction, soon become disenfranchised with the young journalist. In private conversations, several of these individuals have expressed their dismay and surprise over a number of recent Kathmandu Post character assassination campaigns directed at high-ranking officials, all of which occurred under Kaphle's stewardship of the Post. The most prominent victims of these campaigns are Nepal's Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli and the recently-deceased Minister of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, Rabindra Adhikari. At the time, Deepak Joshi, the CEO of Nepal Tourism Board remarked "I don't know what their problem is with honorable minister, he is the most dynamic leader we in the tourism sector have had in many years." Kantipur’s publications implicated the minister in corruption during the purchase of Nepal Airlines’ two new Airbus A330.
A senior foreign service officer of a E.U. country, speaking on condition of anonymity said “we’ve been watching the people involved in the Airbus A330 acquisition deal. We warned Airbus about the corruption here and Airbus didn’t make the deal themselves. But Adhikari wasn’t the guy who made the deal or who benefited from it. He’s got other suspicious dealings to answer for, but that he is being implicated in the Airbus deal is just politics.” As usual, the Kathmandu Post’s reporting and that of the Nepali-language sister publications under the Kantipur umbrella are near-identical, so it is impossible to know whether Kaphle personally approved the investigations that led to the articles. However, as the Kathmandu Post’s editor-in-chief, Kaphle certainly holds ultimate responsibility for the content of the newspaper.
To understand the underlying conflict of interest in Kantipur’s and the Kathmandu Post's one-sided reporting on K.P. Oli and his Tourism minister, it's necessary to understand the events in the autumn of 2015, when the Government of India enacted an unofficial economic blockade against Nepal, shortly after the people of Nepal had experienced two back-to-back earthquakes that killed over 8,000 people and destroyed an estimated one million structures, including thousands of schools and medical clinics. As part of a small, informal group of non-diplomats, which included Christian rights activist Charles Mendies, I proposed to Prime Minister K.P. Oli that an airlift in order to overcome the blockade would be expensive but excellent in terms of public relations. “We are using our aircraft to fly fuel in,” the intrepid and deeply concerned prime minister said. “This is not the first time India has done these things to us, Michael,” the prime minister continued. The problem with organizing a sustained airlift and fly fuel into Nepal was that Nepal Airlines’ two Boeing 757-200 aircraft were barely able to fly with passengers, much less with added weight as a result of carrying fuel tanks. The airlines’ two brand–new Airbus A320 would be needed on flights to Delhi, Doha and Hong Kong.
An American Boeing official intimately familiar with the two aircraft told me several horror stories of near-misses in which hundreds of passengers on board the ageing and poorly-maintained aircraft escaped certain death just by sheer good fortune. “Let’s say they’re taking off from Kathmandu. It’s a valley. The planes fly in a corkscrew pattern to gain altitude. If one of those planes has a bird strike, something as small as a sparrow, that thing is coming down fast. The engines haven’t been overhauled in so many years, that their techs are barely able to keep them going as it is. Once a bird strike occurs, one engine will be shut down. But the other remaining engine is too weak to push the plane high enough. So they’ll end up ditching somewhere in the valley or hit a mountain,” the official explained. “It’s a complete cluster fuck. The worst thing is, they know this and they’re not doing anything about it.” This was later confirmed to me by a Nepal Airlines captain, by an E.U. diplomat and by the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) official.
As a regulatory agency, CAAN has a mandate to ensure that the airlines flying in and out of Nepal meet international norms related to the airworthy operation of the aircraft they’re flying. “Those guys are in bed with Nepal Airlines, that’s how they get away with all this shit,” the frustrated Boeing expert told me. A pair of Airbus officials staying at the Hyatt told me something similar. “When they fix the planes, they leave parts and even tools laying around. One day, something catastrophic is going to happen. We’ve tried telling them, but they just won’t listen.
In addition to suffering from severely limited access to aircraft with which to muster a sustained airlift to ease the effects of the blockade, Nepal also did not have a lot of money available to spend on this airlift. “The prime minister’s fund is not sufficient for such an operation,” an advisor to the K.P. Oli told me. “To get the money from other sources is difficult, because some of our elected officials are making a profit off the blockade. They’re connected to the smugglers,” I learned. With a sustained airlift impossible, at least from a domestic standpoint, I requested friends in America to enlist the U.S. Air Force. Back in the Cold War days of Russia’s blockade of West Berlin, the American airlift originated in Wiesbaden and Frankfurt, my home region. The idea was to fly the fire trucks into Kathmandu and use this unusual photo opportunity to garner international media attention. Why does the U.S. Air Force have to deliver fire trucks by air to Kathmandu? Because of India’s blockade!I imagined the news reports. This plan, too, failed due to American officials’ concern that any U.S. involvement would upset the Indian government.
I then put together a detailed plan for a massive public relations campaign to generate coverage of the blockade. This plan failed to gain traction because of the price tag. One of the plan’s elements consisted of inviting former U.S. President Bill Clinton to visit Nepal. The price tag, including private airfare, for this alone was in excess of a million dollars. Perplexted how a sovereign country couldn’t come up with a few million dollars, I made my way to the finance ministry. “We just don’t have this kind of money here,” someone at the ministry told me. Aimless, I had wandered the corridors of finance to determine where the person responsible for the government budget had his desk. This man, I thought, would be able to tell me where the money could come from. Looking forlorn, I encountered some helpful finance officials who invited me for tea in their cramped office. Evidently, I was the first non-Nepali who had visited this part of the ministry. “Nepal Airlines is buying big Airbus,” one of the officials eventually told me. “Once big Airbus flying, you can do big airlift.” This rather simplistic suggestion required further analysis.
“Yes, it is correct that Nepal Airlines wants to buy not just one but two Airbus A330s,” an E.U. official later told me. “They’ve been at it for years and the political parties can’t decide who should get a piece of the action. It’s all about commissions.” As it would turn out, Nepal Airlines Corporation financed the purchase by using public pension funds. “We are all part of the purchase,” an excited NAC official told me, “we are all owners. We are very proud.” This news depressed my co-producer and me. Nepal, a country with one of the highest foreign remittance rates in the world –a whopping 1/3rdof gross domestic product- did not have sufficient foreign currency reserves to buy two relatively inexpensive airplanes. Instead, the average workers’ pensions were leveraged in order to cover the expense. “They paid far too much for those planes, Michael,” my E.U. diplo source told me. “They made about $10-15 million on this deal, and this was before UML was in power.” UML, the Unified Marxist-Leninist wing of the Communist Part of Nepal, is headed by Prime Minister Oli. “The opposition party is in charge of the investigation. But it was their guys who made the deal and who pocketed the commission. It’s a total mess,” the E.U. official said.
These facts were of no interest to Kantipur Media Group, which launched a long-term campaign against the UML tourism minister, Rabindra Adhikari, and against K.P. Oli. As the first prime minister to firmly stand up to India, even his fiercest critics gave Oli much praise in private conversations. “He really is a hero of Nepal, it’s true. Even though I don’t like him. He is a hero,” a Nepali Congress leader said over dinner. The Range Rover’s clutch had a problem and so after dinner the friendly Congress leader drove me back to the Hyatt. “I didn’t want to say it publicly, but I think Oli will go down in history as the greatest leader of Nepal. Unless he gets re-elected. Then his own people will do whatever they can to ruin his standing. We Nepalese have no loyalty to each other. Its each man looking out for himself. If Oli was in Europe or in America, there’d be statues erected in his lifetime. We are cowards and opportunists, my party included.”
Over lunch in the prime minister’s private home in Timi, Rahika Oli laughed when I asked her to tell me stories of when her husband was young. “My husband is a good man, he always tries to do what’s good for Nepal,” the friendly Mrs. Oli said. “In Nepal, everyone is always pulling everyone else down. My husband is a good man, but he is stuck in this system. Do you want more water?”
I had promised K.P. Oli to keep our private conversations a secret until he left office, but to his –and everyone else’s surprise- the prime minister had just been re-elected the night before. It was only 11 A.M. and already hundreds of well-wishers had come and gone from the residence. The official tract of the compound was full of people waiting for an audience, but upstairs inside the private residence, only a few family members had been assembled. A large sticker of Disney’s Elsa embellished the door leading to K.P.’s living room. Inside, the visibly moved prime minister welcomed me for the first interview since winning the election. After joking about watches, we began having a serious discussion about the blockade. “This election is a sign that we Nepalese can learn from the past. There were blockades before. Nobody did anything. The other parties said nothing during the last blockade, they were all afraid. The people didn’t forget these things.” Asked what he thought would happen now that he won with a landslide, the prime minister-elect paused for a moment. His answer would be foreboding of the problems that would later riddle his government and will only be revealed per the conditions of our gentleman’s agreement.
Stunned by Oli’s solid victory, India’s foreign policy apparatus was in a panic. After years of pro-India governments, here was a new administration that clearly looked to China for long-term assistance in Nepal’s path to greater development. India’s well-laid plans to undermine Nepal’s stability had finally backfired in a big way. “If Oli just lets China in for a few years, we will be able to gain a lot of momentum,” a proud UML cadre told me. “Modi-ji is being extra nice because he knows he lost control of the situation. The Americans and Europeans told him not to do the blockade but he wouldn’t listen to anyone,” a foreign ministry official in Kathmandu said over sekuwa barbeque across from Singha Durbar, the expansive government complex.
Meet me outside my office, is a favorite spiel among Nepalese officials who fear that jealous colleagues or electronic surveillance inside their offices might compromise them. “The Indians are now going to do everything to blame Oli and his cabinet for everything they can, and Nepali Congress will help them,” the official continued. “We are naturally closer to India, much closer. They are Hindus, we are Hinds. But the Indians made a big mistake. The blockade happened too soon after the earthquake. So now we will let China take a turn. It’s their fault for being so arrogant.”
One of the first things that happened after K.P. Oli took power was significant media coverage of Nepal Airlines’ first new Airbus A330 arriving – only four months after the prime minister’s swearing-in ceremony. The aircraft had been ordered under a previous government. These officials evidently held the purse-strings but had no requisite knowledge of the operations of an airliner. A retired Boeing 747 captain who consults for airlines around the world told me by phone “my group studied the A330 purchase, it made no sense to anyone. Nepal Airlines can’t handle those planes. They don’t have the network, the routes, nor the manpower. They don’t pay their pilots competitive wages, so other airlines snipe them up as soon as they have some experience under their belt. They only purchased those planes out of greed. Pure greed,” the captain said.
The minutiae of airline operations can become quite tedious for outsiders, but in the course of a four-hour conversation, one fact most glaringly underlined the seasoned pilot’s point. The specific type of the A-330 aircraft NAC purchased is designed to be deployed on extra-long haul operations, for example a non-stop flight from Kathmandu to London, which would take 12 hours. In order to achieve this feat, the plane is designed in such a way that it can accommodate fewer passengers in order to carry more fuel.
There are three problems with NAC's selection of the Airbus A330 long-range version, however. First, planes only make money when ground-time is minimized and they are kept flying continuously. In order to ensure such efficient operations, Nepal Airlines needs a minimum of eight flight crews per jet. According to an NAC insider, the airline doesn’t have half that many flight crews for the particular type. This means the planes automatically spend more time on the ground and less time flying.
Second, the aircraft’s lower seating capacity versus its medium-range variant, results in a higher cost-per-seat-mile, which means in order to make a profit, tickets have to be priced higher. Passengers are accustomed to paying higher fares for long-haul routes, and so the increased cost-per-seat-mile is spread over a bigger range the longer the route flown. If such an extra-long-haul plane flies short routes, say from Kathmandu to Delhi, the increased cost makes the tickets unaffordable – unless the airlines is prepared to lower its profitability. This, again, would require the plane to be flown at full capacity.
Third, from a technological perspective, the Airbus A330 is a relatively outdated aircraft. With the advent of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350, a new generation of highly-efficient and comfortable jets displaced the A330's generation of planes. Again, however, these new efficient aircraft required rigorous use and minimal ground-time.
As Nepal’s national carrier, Nepal Airlines Corporations is famous for its friendly service, delicious Nepali food and for its brand-new fleet of four Airbus aircraft. However, neither NAC nor any other Nepal government agency is famous for even a token amount of efficiency. Rather than operating the new Airbus A330-200s on routes to London or other far-away cities, the planes are used on short- and medium-range routes. In addition, the lack of flight crews available to the airline means the planes spend an enormous time on the ground. Finally, some of the flight crews operating the planes are not sufficiently experienced to do so safely or efficiently. A NAC official, on condition of anonymity, vented his pent-up frustration. “Our people are breaking those planes, they are causing so much more wear-and-tear than necessary. The brakes, tires, and so many other things need to be replaced or repaired much more frequently than industry standard. They handle the aircraft really rough. Hard landing, hard turns, hard braking,” the official said. Then the official pulled out his smartphone and showed me a WhatsApp conversation with a senior NAC pilot.
Hi XXXX, just so you know, XXX XXXX was my second officer today. XXXX couldn’t land the plane manually. We had to do a go-around.“This is not all, wait,” the official told me before pulling up a conversation with an Australian technician of a flight simulator. XXXXX, who you sent down here last week, doesn’t know how to operate the a/c manually. “A/C means aircraft, I assume,” I said. “Yes, but look,” the official scrolled down.Even after five tries, still couldn’t land manually. Only with auto pilot. Never seen anything like it in my 27 years doing this. You might need to intervene.”
Stunned, I asked the NAC official what he did about this information. “Nothing,” he said, resigned. “Nobody cares, they all just want to make money and look the other way,” the sad-looking man continued. “This is the truth of NAC, it’s a cash cow for so many people. Everyone makes money off the airline.” When I asked who was responsible for the fiasco with the purchase deal, the official looked down for a moment. Then he continued with his explanation. “Airbus refused to sell us the planes, someone warned them. They told us no commissions. So we bought them from a third party who was willing to play the game. Now they’re all blaming Adhikari-ji because he was minister when the planes arrived.” A Middle East-based veteran of the airline industry and NAC competitor told me that one of the first things Tourism Minister Adhikari did was to instruct NAC to find ways to make the planes fly efficiently by obtaining landing slots in cities where high-yield passengers would allow the aircraft to fly profitably. “Do you want to know what happened,” the competitor asked. “Nothing. It’s sad to watch, because Nepal could have a really thriving airline. My understanding is that there are some people receiving kick-backs from outside the airline to make sure it doesn’t operate the way it should.” I was reminded of a previous conversation with a Nepalese Army officer. Death by a thousand cuts, this official told me with regard to India’s game in Nepal.
The Nepal Airlines Corporation matter was the last project I worked on before Nepalese Army, E.U.-country diplomats, secret police officials and several other friends began warning me to leave Nepal. Over the years, I had received such warnings with some regularity, one warning every few months. However, I knew something was out of place when the latest warnings suddenly came with dramatically increased frequency. I had long made detailed plans for a hasty escape if it should become necessary. Friends in Biratnagar had offered to smuggle me across the border to India, and I had practiced driving to Biratnagar as fast as possible on four previous occasions. “What would you have done in India,” Gabriella asked. “A friend has a private jet I can use,” I said. “All you need in order to disappear is an airport ID. But this was the best method, I think. Not even you knew,” I continued.
The Nepal Airlines dilemma is of interest vis-à-vis the Kathmandu Post smear campaign because it serves to illustrate that there are far more interesting topics the newspaper could have pursued, instead of dedicating six front-page stories to the fire truck expedition and to me. Even if the charges the Post leveled against me were true, they do not rise to the urgency or importance of a newspaper story, especially not a front-page story, and much less six front-page stories. Nepal is one of the most corrupt countries on earth. Every day, hundreds of scams rob the people of Nepal by countless millions of dollars. The Kathmandu Post’s editor-in-chief, Anup Kaphle, knows this fact very well. It is therefore noteworthy that a western-trained journalist who has learned his trade at some of the most respected news organizations would pursue such an unworthy case as the details of the fire truck expedition, Kobold Nepal staff’s grievances and all the other topics the Post articulated in its extensive coverage. NAC’s considerable troubles, which appear to be amplified by malicious outside interference, are not the only example of a topic that affects many thousands of Nepalese.
For over two years I headed an informal investigative team consisting of Nepal Police officers, secret police officers, Nepalese Army officials, foreign diplomats, as well as journalists and filmmakers in an effort to uncover the systematic corruption underlying the country’s completely inadequate firefighting services. This investigation is the subject of the filmStart Digging, and uncovered a massive conspiracy -reaching directly to the highest level of government- behind a long string of suspicious and unexplained factory fires across Nepal. In a country where “nothing works,” –to directly quote more than two dozen Nepalese- the firefighting services are of particular curiosity because they directly affect the lives of the people on the ground, especially those who are unable to easily overcome the results of a devastating fire.
If the NAC irregularities are a perfect example of how the Kathmandu Post –and its Kantipur sister publications- deliberately cover topics from only one viewpoint (namely that which serves an unstated political objective), then the complete lack of coverage about the country’s inadequate firefighting services is indicative of just how wrong the country’s biggest English-speaking newspaper has its priorities. Only several months after its first article about the fire truck expedition and me, did the Kathmandu Post publish a shoddily-researched story about Nepal’s firefighting services. In it, the author completely fails to go into any meaningful depth on this topic. However, the aforementioned episodes are far from the most egregious lapses in the journalistic integrity of Anup Kaphle and the Kathmandu Post.
Shortly after the Kathmandu Post’s smear campaign against me began, I received word from several people familiar with Anup Kaphle and one of the Post’s informants that the two had been romantically linked outside of Nepal. Unable to verify this information with hard evidence, I felt it would be unfair to name the second party to this purported horizontal conflict of interest. However, an old news adage has it that two independent sources make a verified story, and I had more than two sources. What I was, however, able to corroborate, are numerous allegations of an elaborate extortion scheme that Kantipur Media Group’s owner, Kailash Sirohiya, has pioneered and perfected.
Over the years, I learned from a great many sources how the majority of news organizations in Nepal operate. “They do positive stories on you and then they ask for money,” said one close personal friend. “Or they do negative stories and ask for money to stop the stories. Kantipur started this many years ago. They did it to the Indian embassy and got away with it. They also did to Ncell, to the E.U. countries’ embassies and to a lot of politicians,” my friend added. Some of Nepal’s most powerful bankers became friends over the years, and it was one of them who told me that he once noticed some unusual activity in the Ncell account. “These guys were moving a lot of money, much more than normal,” this source said. “That was right around the time when Ncell was being sold to the Malaysians.” A search of Kantipur’s archives shows a flurry of negative stories about Ncell around the time of the sales transaction. “They got away with it, because they had someone on the inside they were paying off,” my friend said. “That person is still with Ncell, can you believe it? Only in Nepal.”
On another occasion, I overheard two diplomats talking about Kantipur in a very negative way. It was long before I carefully noted everything I heard and witnessed in Nepal, so it would be inappropriate to recall the conversation. Years later, however, one of the diplomats contacted me after seeing my Roast the Post campaign, which I had started to counter the Kathmandu Post’s libel. “The Indians are at fault, if they hadn’t let those guys get away with it, it would have ended before it began.” When I expressed surprise at the fact that several other embassies had also paid Kantipur to stop negative coverage, the diplomat said “we could black list them, but if we do that to all of the people who are in on this scheme, we’d be blacklisting the whole bloody lot of them,” the person said in reference to not granting blacklisted individuals visas for travel abroad. “You have to remember the free press part of the equation.”
“Mikey, you know how things work in Nepal now, you have to pay to play, it’s just how it works here. Sirohiya is no different. If someone pays him to do a smear campaign, he’ll unleash his attack dogs,” this journalist told me by phone. Interestingly, Kailash Sirohiya, the chairman of Kantipur Media Group, wrote in an email that he could not influence the editorial department of his company. Yet that is exactly what several witnesses told me he does regularly. “He sat in front of me and picked up his phone, called his editor and told him not to run more stories,” one source said. “He’s really the media mafia boss of Nepal, straight out of Citizen Kane,” this man said.
The most damning confirmation of Kailash Sirohiya’s mafia practices came from a gentleman whose identity I promised not to reveal until sometime later. This gentleman, the former chief executive of one of Nepal’s most powerful companies, confirmed several stories of corruption and racketeering I had previously heard from other sources. After this gentleman invited me to visit him, I boarded a flight and went through all my notes about Kantipur’s long list of fraudulent activities. “They specifically place people inside companies who then feed them information. These people are business partners of sorts. Then Kantipur runs negative stories and only stops once they’ve been bribed. It’s a system that works surprisingly well because everyone is terrified of them,” the man said. “I retained an international investigation team to look into who was behind the leaks in our company, and I was shocked by what they discovered. They compiled a huge report. I can tell you about it but I can’t show it to you, I have to be careful,” the man said.
Despite its 3.5+ million residents, Kathmandu has successfully maintained its small-town feel. People are still friendly to each other, everyone attends everyone else’s parties, the youth complains of a crushing lack of privacy (“everywhere my boyfriend takes me for dinner, we run into his or my parents’ friends”) and life is generally slow-paced by the standards of other Asian metropolises. What is not slow-paced, however, is Kathmandu’s perpetual rumor mill, which spins faster than a jet-powered prayer wheel. “In Kathmandu, there are no secrets,” a longtime expatriate told me one day. Likewise, Kantipur’s dirty laundry –the racketeering, extortion and money laundering schemes- is the stuff of constant chatter.
The fact that Kailash Sirohiya is a successful mobster is not a secret either. “That’s why he wanted someone like Anup, a guy from the outside,” a long-time Kantipur employee told me. “See, to us, we know the guy. We know who and what he is. But if he travels abroad, where people don’t understand Nepali, his Kathmandu Post is his only calling card. So if that paper is run like a real newspaper, on the surface, he looks like a good guy,” the person said.
Anup Kaphle is, by all accounts, an astute young man. After working for several respectable news organizations, he evidently longed to return to Nepal. This desire is not altogether unusual in the sense that many Nepalese living abroad miss their beloved country. What is odd, however, is that Anup Kaphle might well have continued climbing up the ladder of international journalism. Certainly, the Kathmandu Post is not altogether high on that ladder. In Nepal alone, there are at least five other news organizations that are highly respected, both domestically and internationally.
Anup Kaphle must have been aware of his boss’s sordid reputation. Likewise, he must have known that there are plenty of other respectable organizations where someone with coveted international experience could make a positive contribution. Still, and perhaps in a decision that would betray his poor moral character, the 36-year-old Anup Kaphle agreed to enter into a relationship with the feared and loathed media don of Kathmandu - a genuine big fishin the proverbial little sea. Asked about Kaphle, whom he knows well, a fellow journalist didn’t hesitate before saying “guilty by association.”
Read Part 9: "Fire with Fire" by clicking on the link below: