It’s difficult to say how much impact newspaper reports and editorials can have in the society or if they draw the attention of foreign observers in Nepal at all. As a media person, I often wonder why some issues, so pressing, so deserving and so demanding, go ignored by concerned authorities. Why the government turns blind eye to vital public issues vigorously raised by media and why no action is taken against the proven corrupt. Even when newspapers make a compelling case for justice, good governance, accountability, and rule of law international bodies seemingly take no notice or at least give that impression.
Monday brought a pleasant twist to this narrative. After two months of relentless reporting by this newspaper and solidarity from other media outlets, the government finally showed spine to sack Nepal Oil Corporation Managing Director Gopal Khadka. Whether the punishment remains limited to ‘sacking’ or whether he will be prosecuted in a court of law remains to be seen. Those who misuse power while in public office often go unpunished after they get a sack. The dismissal comes as a relief to notoriously corrupt in Nepal. But this particular case had also become a matter of concern for international actors.
US speaks up
On September 7, we ran an editorial calling on the government to dismiss Khadka, whose hands in corruption amounting to Rs 670 million in controversial land procurement was established. “Why hasn’t the prime minister dismissed Khadka?” we asked. We called for an immediate dismissal of him and other corrupt persons (see “Dismiss them,” Republica, Sept 7).
Gopal Khadka seemed like an invincible actor with close nexus with various power centers. He had been declared corrupt by various committees of the parliament. Mainstream media had exposed his complicity in a number of scams. He threatened Dilip Poudel, the reporter who exposed his vice. He even filed a defamation case against Nagarik and Republica demanding Rs 800 million in compensation.
On September 8, US Ambassador to Nepal Alaina B Teplitz expressed solidarity by tweeting the aforementioned editorial with the comment “reports of corruption abound. Gov’t must suspend those involved, investigate, and prosecute cases aggressively to end this scourge”. The comments of foreign diplomats on Nepali affairs are often criticized in the media as ‘interference’. But this one had the opposite effect.
The ambassador was lauded for ringing alarm bells so that Nepali political actors would listen. Bishow Parajuli, the UN resident coordinator to Zimbabwe, “applauded” her support against corruption in his Tweet. Krishna Hari Puskar, who once served as the spokesperson at CIAA, wrote “Very good suggestion! Excellency, I believe some technical assistance is required for the same.” It is important that international actors “give pressure” to control corruption, “it’s not possible from only us,” wrote Sushil Pokharel.
In response to the news entitled “Govt must suspend those involved in corruption: US envoy,” Republica received words of appreciation for the ambassador. Samjhana Shah suggested that Teplitz should consider “imposing a visa ban on all corrupt political leaders and government officials”. If you do this, she wrote, “they will think twice before indulging in corruption. Most corrupt in Nepal have children studying in the US and they hope to go to the US after retirement”. Another commentator, Marcus Cotton, wrote: “I hope all envoys and aid agencies operating in Nepal endorse and support Ambassador Teplitz’s clear stand”. Any other foreign envoy speaking against corruption would have been as appreciated.
That Nepali actors have to be reminded of the urgency to remove corrupt faces from public office by a foreign envoy is no cause for celebration but politics has become so corrupt that someone important speaking against it comes as a big relief to people.
This episode opens the question of whether international actors can contribute to media advocacy for rule of law and corruption control. They can, and they should.
Teplitz would not have received such adulation, had she, for example, commented on, or sounded like commenting on, say, what should be done with the constitution or how Nepal should conduct its foreign affairs with India and China. She was hailed mainly because she spoke against corruption, the “scourge” that is eating Nepal alive bit by bit.
Breaking the silence
Foreign diplomats often maintain silence when they are expected to speak up. They had largely stayed mum when the country was subjected to horrendous economic blockade in 2015/16. None of the foreign missions cared to express concern when Dr Govinda KC was putting his life on the line for greater reforms in health and medical education.
If the foreign donors and diplomats in Kathmandu had at least made a strong appeal against the blockade, it could have been lifted much earlier and Nepalis would have been spared of all the troubles.
Understandably, there was a catch then. If they condemned blockade, it would mean condemning India. In one meeting with a foreign envoy at the time, I had asked why they were not speaking up for Nepal even as the country was experiencing a serious humanitarian crisis. “We know what is happening in Nepal is cruel and unjust. But you see, we cannot say this publicly,” he almost whispered. Diplomats need not maintain this formality when it comes to talking about rule of law and corruption-free Nepal.
Political parties are considered as the most corrupt entities in Nepal. They have been misusing billions from the state treasury, around one-third of which comes from foreign grants and loans. Foreign aid totals around US$ three billion in an annual budget. Apart from India and China, most of this aid comes from the UK, US, Japan, Norway, UN agencies, World Bank and other western donors.
So it makes sense for them to question where this money goes and to ensure that the money meant for public welfare and development does not go into the hands of corrupt politicians.
Nepal’s corruption cases are classic, sickening and frustrating. A corrupt official tries to silence the media and public voice. They openly protect proven murder convict (think of Maoist party and Bal Krishna Dhungel). They openly lobby to allow the graft convict to contest the elections (think of the amendments sought by some Nepali Congress leaders on Election Act). Thanks to media watch and strong opposition from leaders like Dhana Raj Gurung, this disgrace was averted.
But every step of the way there is either silence or solidarity among political class when it comes to protecting or promoting corrupt actors. How many top leaders spoke against Gopal Khadka?
It’s difficult to draw a line between what is political and what is rule of law, transparency and governance issue. They all appear intricately connected. But, in my view, it is perfectly okay for diplomats to speak against corruption.
I can imagine how corrupt politicians can try to influence foreign envoys: We are always against corruption. Media is after me to exact revenge. Do not believe in what they say.
I would suggest that in every meeting with Nepali political actors the foreign envoys should raise the following questions: Why do you protect the criminals? Why are you making a mockery of revolution against corruption and for reforms initiated by a selfless person like Dr Govinda KC? Why do you harbor criminals and corrupt in your party?
Perhaps they will realize that they are being watched not only by the media but by the world at large. Shaming them might make them accountable.
With three sets of local elections over, and after upcoming provincial and federal parliament elections are conducted, Nepal must embark on the path of implementing the constitution, on the road to realizing its long-cherished dream of attaining economic prosperity. This, as is evident, is not going to be possible without foreign assistance.
But there are already signs of budget allocated to local units being squandered for the purchase of luxury vehicles while vital infrastructures are yet to be built. There is a real risk of new political setup failing mainly because of corrupt leaders.
The mission of Nepali media should be uprooting or at least minimizing corruption and speaking in favor of good governance, rule of law, transparency and accountability. If international actors stand together with the media it will send an alarming message to all the corrupt: both national and international stakeholders are united against us.