Updated: Jul 26, 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 grou