New Delhi is ranged against not only Nepal's biggest political party but also its largest media house.
The Indian Embassy in Kathmandu is in the middle of a controversy. It stands accused, yet again, of ‘gross interference' and ‘attacking press freedom in another country', and faces censure from a parliamentary committee, politicians across the spectrum, and civil society groups. Last week, sections of the media, including Kantipur television which is a part of the larger Kantipur group, reported that a product of Dabur Nepal was substandard and contained harmful substances. On August 27, the embassy said, “Indian joint ventures have informed the embassy they have been approached by such media houses for advertisement and are being threatened with negative publicity if those requests are not met.” It termed the news reports as ‘baseless adverse publicity against products of such ventures' and said such allegations in the past had proven to be false.
Organisations representing media owners, which included the Kantipur publisher, immediately condemned the statement, said media is free to choose its content, and cautioned the embassy to ‘respect diplomatic norms and values of press freedom'. The embassy reacted again, saying the statement by media organisations would have been more credible if backed by a condemnation of unethical practices adopted in eliciting advertising revenue from Indian joint ventures. Since then, the Parliament's international relations and human rights committee has instructed the government to seek a clarification from the Indian envoy for the embassy's statements and termed it as blatant interference in free press.
Marked by hostility
The present spat is essentially a reflection of the hostile relationship between the Indian government and the Kantipur group — the biggest media house in Nepal. The Hindu has been able to piece together the broader context based on conversations with all stakeholders, who wished to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. Earlier this year, Indian officials concluded that Kantipur's coverage — reporting and editorial line — was ‘distinctly anti-Indian' and ‘insensitive to security concerns'. Several stories appear to have contributed to this perception.
Jamim Shah, a Nepali entrepreneur reported to have deep links with the underworld and Dawood Ibrahim, was shot in broad daylight in February this year. Kantipur news reports alluded to the possibility of Indian agencies being involved in the incident. It also republished a report from more than a decade ago when a political figure, Mirza Dilshad Beg, with links to Ibrahim, was shot dead — the speculation then was similar about how Indian security agencies may have encouraged other underworld groups, particularly Chotta Rajan, to plan the killing. A few months later, Kantipur reported extensively on the localised clashes in Meghalaya which resulted in the killings of some Nepali nationals. Indian officials felt the reports on the incidents were ‘grossly exaggerated' to stoke ‘anti-Indianism'.
The passport issue
Kantipur was also at the forefront of opposing a government decision to award contracts to supply machine readable passports to India. A parliamentary committee, sections of the ruling alliance, and the Maoists had opposed the move, claiming the Indian bid was higher and would ‘harm Nepal's security'. Kantipur published a letter — which was leaked — written by Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood to the Nepali Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala in which he requested the government to cooperate because among other reasons, this involved ‘India's security interests'. The domestic backlash forced the Nepal cabinet to revoke the decision. Additionally, while India was a firm backer of the Madhav Kumar Nepal government and sought to isolate the Maoists, Kantipur adopted an editorial stance asking for Prime Minister Nepal's resignation for the sake of consensus.
All of this seems to have fuelled the Indian perception — which had first taken root after a change in top editorial staff in Kantipur publications last year — that the media house, through ‘baseless and unsubstantiated reporting' was targeting India's ‘core interests', stoking ‘ultra nationalism', and ‘favouring the Maoists'.
India first stopped providing embassy advertisements to Kantipur. It then decided, sometime in May, to ratchet up the pressure and coordinated with other agencies back home, especially the Department of Revenue Investigation and customs, to stop newsprint imported by Kantipur from South Korea at the Kolkata port. Simultaneously, Indian officials are learnt to have showed files of Kantipur's ‘anti-India reporting' to Indian joint venture representatives in Nepal and asked them to stop all advertisements in Kantipur television, the Kantipur daily, and The Kathmandu Post. The corporate houses complied.
In the third week of June, Kantipur went public accusing India of deliberately blocking newsprint at Kolkata. The Embassy called the allegations baseless, and attributed the delay to a ‘routine administrative investigation'. Political parties, media organisations and civil society expressed solidarity with Kantipur.
Soon after, Ambassador Sood and Kantipur's owner Kailash Sirohiya met for almost two hours at the embassy. Sources say the ‘open discussions' centred on Indian perceptions about Kantipur's anti-India tilt, with Mr. Sirohiya saying there was no such deliberate design and the embassy had never conveyed these concerns to them. A broad agreement was struck where Kantipur is understood to have assured India that it would be more ‘sensitive' in its coverage while India agreed to release newsprint.
India did gradually resume newsprint supply and Kantipur's editorial tone underwent a subtle shift. It began to report less on India-related matters with some critical articles being kept out. But the issue of advertisements remained unresolved. The embassy line to the joint ventures did not change, even as Kantipur waited for the advertisements to resume and asked embassy officials for help. Meanwhile, some of these advertisements were shifting to its arch-rivals in Nepal's increasingly competitive media market.
It is in this context that the Dabur controversy erupted. Some other media houses — a tabloid paper and a television channel — had been writing on the issue of Dabur's alleged substandard products since the end of May. The company's representatives had refuted these reports — it issued public interest notices, co-operated with the certification authorities, and wrote to the press council asking it to censure ‘baseless reports'.
The timing of Kantipur's discovery of the issue appears to be directly related to the group losing patience in its talks with Indian officials, and feeling insecure. It seems to have concluded that its ‘silence' over the past two months was being construed as a ‘sign of weakness', and so thought that ratcheting up the pressure by targeting companies and building public opinion could challenge the Indians and force it to change its position. But going public could well have the effect of strengthening the ‘tough' approach within the Indian establishment that had advocated such a course of action in the first place.
While Kantipur's dilemmas are understandable, its recent coverage does have traces of national chauvinism and appears opportunistic, linked to the advertisement embargo. While keeping big business — both domestic and Indian — to account, it should be careful and responsible enough not to tarnish companies whose contribution to manufacturing, trading, employment, and revenue is important to the Nepali economy.
But it is the Indian government that needs to do a serious review. First, there is the ethical propriety of using such strong-arm tactics against the media in a country where India claims to be ‘supporting democratic forces'. But then there are real pragmatic issues. The Indian state used Indian big business operating in Nepal for questionable political purposes. The companies became willing pawns in the bigger game; this has boomeranged and joint ventures are paying the price.
India is now ranged against not only the country's biggest political party, the Maoists, but also its biggest media house, Kantipur. It has opened up multiple fronts at the same time in Nepal, all in the name of ‘national security', and stands exposed, with even its traditional allies finding it hard to defend India in public. Delhi may be smug about Nepal's overwhelming structural dependence on India, but it underestimates the depth of resentment against India in Nepal at its own peril.