Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Cash-For-Coverage Caper

It turns out the royal government paid up to 99 journalists or media organizations to carry favorable coverage. Most of the alleged recipients were “nationalist,” “independent” or whatever pro-palace adjective you might want to use.
The bulk of the budget was allegedly consumed by reporters and editors who defended King Gyanendra’s takeover to the hilt – one pocketing up to a million bucks. Another scribe was said to have received wads of banknotes from the monarch himself. Others served the cause by simply restraining their criticism of the regime.
A few recipients, however, belonged to outlets that were at the forefront of the anti-palace jihad. Take this weekly, for instance, whose sustained censure many considered to be the absolute affirmation of the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML)’s conversion to “total democracy”. Or that private TV organization bearing the name of its parent company that most of thought held the mantle of freedom of the press the highest.
Most of these anti-palace outlets and individuals deny having touched royal cash. Two TV journos have resigned as the first step toward clearing their name. Moreover, the “opposition” journalists were the recipients of the smallest portions of royal largesse. Another defense, which none of the alleged recipients has advanced vigorously enough, is that the payments were for “dissemination of peace-related information.” Theoretically, they could have done that while criticizing King Gyanendra’s direct rule.
This episode raises a broader question relevant to Nepalese affairs: the difficulty of discovering who is who. The denigration of one publishing house as a front for the Indian government has not prevented it from bringing out English and Nepali dailies. Behind that criticism, rival “indigenous” publishers have been advancing more energetically causes close to New Delhi.
Now, great minds do think alike. Those with an abiding faith in freedom and democracy can have the same core beliefs regardless of national borders. Should too much be read into this convergence? Not until you realize how this argument deepens the original cover.
Such mistrust confounds Nepal’s wider politics. In their spasms of fury, the Maoists claim the current government has enough “agents” of the palace and foreign expansionists and imperialists to annihilate the peace process several times over.
Could the rebels be referring to the new people in charge of, say, the foreign and finance ministries, who are ostensibly more vulnerable to such pressures? Did Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala appoint a second deputy prime minister from a smaller but more radical communist constituent of the Seven Party Alliance in response to the supposed susceptibilities of his UML deputy premier?
But what about the Maoists’ own flank? Considering their current cordiality, it is easy to forget how rebel supremo Prachanda not too long ago accused his deputy, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai of being an Indian agent, prompting the latter to describe his boss a palace lackey.
This naming and shaming can only get better should someone identify the beneficiaries of the Indian Embassy’s munificence. Considering the stakes involved on all sides, Maila Baje doubts such a list will ever become public.