Kathmandu, December 30-
Suryadarshan Saving and Cooperative case has taken social media and national politics by storms.
Independent analyst Pranaya Rana writes comprehensively in Off The Record:
Rabi Lamichhane, television presenter turned politician, chief of the newly minted Rastriya Swatantra Party
Kantipur Publications, the most widely read newspaper in the country, also the most powerful in terms of influence
Scene: A political rally in Pokhara
It all started with a corn cob. It was Saturday, December 23, and Rabi Lamichhane, chair of the Rastriya Swatantra Party, was giving a speech at Pokhara’s Amar Singh Chowk. He was partway through the speech when a corn cob came flying out of the crowd, launched at Lamichhane by one Santosh Ranabhat. The corn cob didn’t hit Lamichhane but he picked it up and turned it into a prop. To his credit, asked his supporters in the crowd to refrain from retaliating against Ranabhat and pledged to take the cob as a sign of the public’s dissatisfaction with poor governance.
That would’ve been that if not for a news article that appeared in Kantipur just a few minutes later. In the article, Kantipur reported that Ranabhat had attacked Lamichhane right after the latter began speaking about cooperatives. Kantipur further said that Ranabhat was a member of the Suryadarshani Cooperative, a financial institution, whose owner had embezzled funds, leaving hundreds of cooperative members in the lurch. The report said that the owner, GB Rai, had illegally transferred money from the cooperative to found the Galaxy 4K television network, of which Lamichhane was once the managing director. The report stated that Lamichhane himself had also taken loans from the cooperative to invest in in Galaxy 4K. This report was barely 150 words long and had no byline. Yet, it leveled serious accusations of illegal activities against Lamichhane, implicating him alongside GB Rai.
Naturally, Lamichhane took umbrage at this report. In a long post on social media, Lamichhane called out Kantipur for making large claims without adequate evidence. He posted a video of him on the phone with the police in Pokhara who reported that they were still looking into the attacker’s background and that his affiliation with the Suryadarshani Cooperative was “fake news”. The police also said that no media house or journalist had reached out to them yet. Lamichhane took this as clear evidence that Kantipur had concocted its news report to tie him to GB Rai’s embezzlement and defame him.
It turns out that Lamichhane was right to call out Kantipur as that original news report surreptitiously had a clarification appended to it. The clarification says that Ranabhat attacked Lamichhane well before the latter began talking about cooperatives and that there is no evidence that Ranabhat was affiliated with any cooperative. Prevalent journalistic practice is to edit the text itself and add a clarification to state clearly what the original text was and what it was changed to. But Kantipur has left the original text as it is, with just bold highlights and an asterisk. The clarification is at the very end.
However, it turned out that that short report was only a teaser of things to come. On Monday, Kantipur published a front page report under the headline, ‘ग्यालेक्सी टीभीका सञ्चालकले हिनामिना गरे १९ हजार पोखरेलीको डेढ अर्ब बचत’ (Owner of Galaxy tv embezzled the savings of 19,000 Pokhara residents). This much longer article goes into great detail about how GB Rai, the founder and owner of Galaxy 4K television and also the founder of Suryadarshani Cooperative, embezzled millions of rupees from the cooperative to invest in his television network. Thousands of creditors had complained to Pokhara Metropolitan City that the cooperative was no longer functional and they were afraid that the operators had escaped with their savings. The city then formed an investigative committee that presented an investigative report to the city. According to the report, Rai and his associates embezzled Rs 1,355,300,000 by taking ‘advances’ from the cooperative and settling these advances by setting up fake accounts. Although Rai had concocted papers showing that the advance amounts had been deposited back into the cooperative, no funds were actually deposited, according to Kantipur. The report also states that an internal loan of Rs 10 million was given out to Rabi Lamichhane and settled similarly by setting up a fake account.
According to Nepali law, it is illegal for cooperatives to give out loans to any for-profit companies and to individuals who are not members of the cooperative. When Kantipur spoke to Lamichhane, he stated that he had no dealings at all with Suryadarshani Cooperative. So if he had taken out a loan from the cooperative, it would’ve been illegal. Lamichhane further said that if a loan had been issued in his name, he had no knowledge of it and that his citizenship document could have been misused by someone else.
Let’s recap a bit here so no one is lost. GB Rai was the founder of Galaxy 4K Television and also the founder of Suryadarshani Cooperative, a financial institution that collects savings from its members and lends money out to those very members. Rabi Lamichhane was once the managing director of Galaxy 4K and a close associate of Rai. He quit Galaxy 4K to pursue politics and founded the Rastriya Swatantra Party. Rai and Lamichhane have both been implicated in the embezzlement of funds from Suryadarshani Cooperative to invest in Galaxy 4K. Or so Kantipur says.
This report prompted a lot of criticism, not just of Lamichhane but also of Kantipur. The blog mysansar outlines several shortcomings in the Kantipur report. The primary issue is that even though the majority of allegations concern GB Rai, the report has turned Lamichhane into something of a co-conspirator without adequate evidence. The sole document reproduced in the report is a ledger of sorts that simply mentions that an internal loan taken in the name of Rabi Lamichhane has been settled. There is no other evidence that Lamichhane himself was involved in taking the loan, investing the funds into Galaxy 4K, or fraudulently settling the account. All allegations against Lamichhane have been reproduced without any supporting evidence. When making serious allegations of embezzlement, isn’t it incumbent upon the newspaper to produce proof?
If only that was where things stood. On Tuesday, Kantipur released yet another front-page report implicating Lamichhane in the embezzlement of funds from another cooperated owned by GB Rai, Sahara Cooperative. The report alleges that Rs 117,100,000 was embezzled from Sahara Cooperative and used to purchase shares in Gorkha Media Pvt. Ltd, the parent company owned by Rai that operates Galaxy 4K Television. At that time, Rai was chairman and Lamichhane was managing director of Galaxy 4K. According to documents presented by Kantipur, Rai owned 85% of the company while Lamichhane owned 15%.
Once again, the primary accused in the report is GB Rai with Lamichhane’s name only being mentioned as a shareholder. No evidence is presented that Lamichhane was involved in the embezzlement of funds from Sahara Cooperative or even was aware of what was happening at the time. The bulk of the report implicates Rai but Lamichhane is mentioned in the sub-head and his photo is displayed prominently on the front page.
Lamichhane duly issued his clarification via social media. He states that Kantipur attempted to insinuate that he remains a shareholder of Galaxy 4K by posting an old shareholder certificate. Lamichhane says that his 15% shares were given to him for no investment as a reward for his work and that when he left Galaxy 4K, he transferred those shares legally. Lamichhane provided a photo of the new share certificate that shows that he does not hold any more shares in Galaxy 4K. However, Lamichhane pleads ignorance and says that he was not aware of what was happening at the company while he was there. If Rai was embezzling money then Lamichhane was in the dark, he says. He also claims that it is not right to keep pulling him into issues regarding a company that he has already left.
That might be Lamichhane’s defense but it does not excuse him from responsibility. Even if he has left the company, he will still be partly responsible for any illegal activities that might have taken place at the company while he was there. Lamichhane cannot plead ignorance of the law and if it turns out that Galaxy 4K was involved in illegal activities then Lamichhane, as managing director at the time, will also be held responsible.
On Wednesday, another front-page report on GB Rai but this time, no mention of Lamichhane. But if you thought that Kantipur was letting go of Lamichhane, you’d be mistaken. Thursday brought yet another front-page report and once again, Lamichhane was back in the crosshairs. The report was titled ‘सहकारी घोटालामा रवि लामिछानेको प्रत्यक्ष संलग्नता, बुटवलको सहकारीबाट करोड उठाएर ग्यालेक्सी टीभीमा सेयर’ (Ravi Lamichhane directly involved in the cooperative scam, shares in Galaxy TV by raising crores from Butwal cooperative). The report presents a blurry screenshot of a deposit voucher from Global IME Bank which states that Rs 1 crore (10 million) was transferred from Supreme Savings and Cooperative Ltd, also owned by GB Rai, into the account of Gorkha Media Pvt Ltd, the parent company of Galaxy 4K. The voucher lists Rabi Lamichhane and Roshani Gurung as the depositors. This is the only evidence provided. The rest of the report simply tries to substantiate why Lamichhane can be implicated in the dealings, based solely on the few documents that Kantipur has provided.
In response, Lamichhane has said that for him to have transferred funds from Supreme Savings and Cooperative to a Gorkha Media account, he would’ve had to have an account at the said cooperative. He states that he has never held any account at Supreme Savings. Furthermore, he states that Kantipur continues to smear him based on insufficient evidence. The deposit slip only has his name on it. Anyone could’ve written his name, is Lamichhane’s argument. There’s no signature or any other supporting evidence that Lamichhane himself was responsible for the transfer. Banks ask for identification documents, generally a citizenship card, which they keep on file for any deposits over Rs 1 million. So if Lamichhane conducted the deposit, as implicated by his name on the deposit voucher, shouldn’t the bank have his documents on file?
This is where we are at the moment. Kantipur and Lamichhane have traded barbs but both sides do not appear to have enough evidence. Kantipur’s numerous reports have not established that Lamichhane has done anything illegal. They’ve merely insinuated his involvement or collaboration in illegal activities conducted by his one-time partner GB Rai. For a paper of record to print such allegations, that too numerous times on the front page, without solid irrefutable evidence is bad journalism. It opens them up to legal action and also actively harms Lamichhane’s reputation. For Lamichhane’s part, he too hasn’t been able to provide evidence that he is completely in the clear. But in cases like these, the burden of proof is on the accuser. Kantipur cannot sling mud hoping some of it will stick. The report and its associated evidence must be incontrovertible enough to stand in a court of law.
Kantipur and Lamichhane have long been at loggerheads. From carefully reading the reports, it does appear that Kantipur has an agenda and is attempting to set a narrative. The goal does not seem to be to haul Lamichhane to court and prosecute him for wrongdoing as there just isn’t enough substance there. The aim, it seems, is to destroy his credibility, perhaps out of vindictiveness given just how much Lamichhane has publicly challenged Kantipur. The very powerful people at Kantipur, including the publisher, the directors, and the chief editor, are clearly not happy with Lamichhane for airing their dirty laundry back in February.
This is not to say that Lamichhane is clean. There are certainly skeletons in his closet. His rise through the media and his transformation into a politician have not been without controversy. But how Kantipur has been hounding him is not the way to expose his wrongdoings. It only hurts real journalism when owners and editors attempt to use journalists for their own vendetta. The public at large might not read Kantipur as critically as we in the media fraternity do. They will believe the accusations because it’s printed in Kantipur. But if this is the way things are going to go, we will be worse off for it.
Courtesy: Off The Record: https://recordnepal.substack.com/p/off-the-record-122-kantipur-vs-rabi