On February 18, 2020, The Kathmandu Post republished an article titled ‘China’s secrecy has made coronavirus crisis much worse’, authored by Ivo Daalder, originally published in The Korea Herald, a member of the Asia News Network. What accompanied the article was an illustration of the Chinese leader Mao wearing a mask, which was taken from Shutterstock. The point to note is that the same image has been used many times by different news portals and media organizations. On the same day, the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Nepal issued a statement expressing ‘strong dissatisfaction and firm protest’. They had nothing to say to the Shutterstock for first coming up with the illustration. The statement went on to allege the Post’s Editor-in-Chief, Anup Kaphle, of always being ‘biased on China-related issues’ and even threatened him of “further action”.
Interestingly, or perhaps quite obviously, there is no information or news about the Chinese Embassy in South Korea issuing any statement against The Korea Herald, the primary source from where the article originated. A similar image was used by The Economist in 2003 during the SARS outbreak and no statement from Chinese institutions was recorded. Therefore, the Chinese Embassy in Nepal’s statement against the Post this time, in Nepal, is quite concerning, for it demonstrates the degree of influence China already has in the internal affairs of sovereign Nepal. Or perhaps, the PRC is testing Nepali society’s preparedness to digest such an interference.
Given Nepal’s political history of multiple movements for democracy and democratic values and the more recent government activities to curtail democratic freedom, an ambassador’s attack on one of the fundamental pillars of democracy—press—is truly saddening. It has not been long since the media groups protested the controversial media bill presented in the parliament for its unconstitutionality. Only weeks later, they have had to jointly condemn another assault on media freedom that Nepal’s Constitution ensures. This time, though, the challenge to the Constitution came from a high-level representative of a sovereign nation—China.
Chinese ambassador exceeding her diplomatic mandate is concerning in itself; what is even more disappointing is the Nepal government’s silence on this issue. Nepal’s constitution allows media independence and freedom, and it is the government’s responsibility to ensure not only press freedom and independence but also security from any possible assault against it. The government’s silence will encourage Chinese encroachment on Nepal’s civic and media space further in the future. If the government does not officially condemn the Embassy’s statement and inquire the use of disparaging words such as ‘further action’, it becomes questionable how impartially, or safely for that matter, Nepali media will be able to report news about China in future without ‘fear and favor’. After all, even the article in question arose from China’s attempt to hide the corona outbreak initially, the impact of which is being felt internationally, not just within China’s borders.
One should not overlook the sensitivity of the issue—coronavirus— while analyzing this unfortunate occurrence that has the potential to cause diplomatic ruptures. However, it is also unwise to disregard the socio-political circumstances under which the event takes place. Nepal is a democratic country, or at least it is aspiring to become one, with press freedom being a major component of it. There is a clear separation between the state and media, which means that the media has the freedom to express their opinion, as does any other individual or organization. For a foreign individual or organization coming from a different political system, therefore, adapting to Nepal’s democratic practices may be a challenging task. It may be particularly challenging for someone with little understanding of and familiarity with human rights or freedom of expression. However, instead of mocking the ignorance, the learned should take up the responsibility to educate the lost. The ignorant, on the other hand, should be open to learning new things, which may also involve unlearning certain ideas or beliefs.
No learning is a one-way process, though. Just the way Nepal learns from China’s development model and technological advancement, China and its officials should learn a thing or two from Nepal, especially media and press freedom, which can be the first of many, and Nepali leaders and media personnel should facilitate the process.
Author: CESIF Nepal