First came a blunder retweet, and then fake news from the govt

Published On: April 10, 2020 09:07 PM NPT By: Republica  | @RepublicaNepal

PM’s press advisor says the team was never aware of OPMCM’s verified Facebook page 

KATHMANDU, April 10: When India's Modi government was struggling to calm down the country's Muslim population over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) bill late December last year, PM KP Sharma Oli's twitter handle (@PM_Nepal) “accidently” retweeted a tweet (by Indian journalist @DilliDurAst) where Sonia Gandhi was criticizing Modi for crackdown on protests. This was December 20, 2019. 

After social media uproar, PM's press advisor Surya Thapa wrote on Facebook that they were launching a probe into the incident. Moreover, the Cyber Bureau of Nepal Police also launched an investigation. But since then no one has heard anything of the investigation. Surya Thapa, PM’s press advisor, said the Cyber Bureau has not reported back to the PMO regarding the investigation. Even the Indian ambassador to Nepal and the Indian Embassy was surprised by the retweet. The retweet was quickly retracted. But the damage was already done.

Then came another blunder yesterday, from the government’s Facebook page. The verified Facebook page of the Office of the Prime Ministers and Council of Ministers (OPMCM) posted a note at 4 PM, saying that those stuck in Kathmandu due to lockdown would be allowed to go home. Online news outlets quickly posted breaking news. And there was an update on the OPMCM’s Facebook post, saying that the decision was reversed because local and provincial governments did not agree to the decision. 

Soon after OPMCM posted the status, ruling NCP’s leader and Province 5 Chief Minister, Shankar Pokhrel, wrote a contradictory post on Facebook at 4:52 PM. He said that the decision to allow people to leave Kathmandu was not true. 

And then Lekhraj Bhatta, Minister of Industry, Commerce and Supplies, told a TV channel around the same time that the government was going to facilitate people’s movement to their hometowns, who were stuck in Kathmandu due to the extended lockdown. YOHO TV posted an audio conversation with the minister at 5:12 PM. So this interview was taken right after OPMCM’s announcement on its Facebook page. 


After Minister Bhatta's TV interview footage went viral on social media, the coordinator of high-level coordination committee formed to prevent and contain the COVID-19, Ishwar Pokhrel, posted a message on Facebook at 6:29 PM, saying that no such decision has been made, terming the media reports baseless. 

By the time he posted the Facebook status, social media was flooded with government’s criticism with people showing both the OPMCM's official facebook page post and minister Pokhrel's status. 

The Ministry of Home Affairs issued a statement around 7 PM, denying decisions to allow people to leave Kathmandu. Then the verified Facebook page of the OPMCM was suddenly deleted around 8PM. As the news about page deletion went viral, some blamed PM's IT consultant Asgar Ali. He is the same man who has been under fire after his IT company deleted a news content critical to PM's aides from a Kathmandu-based online news portal earlier last week. 

“Although I am not the concerned authority to speak on behalf of the OPMCM, what I can say is that such a Facebook page never existed. The OPMCM authorities can speak more on it,” PM’s press advisor Thapa said. He further said that there is no question of deleting the Facebook page when they have no idea of its existence in the first place. 

Thapa said that he heard about the Facebook page only after some online portals ran the news about travels yesterday. He alleged that online news portals were in a rush to break the news based on hearsay, without verifying the news from authentic sources. However, online portals ran the story after seeing the status on OPMCM’s verified page.

At 6:23 PM, Thapa posted a Facebook status: “Lockdown means lockdown. It's not true that people will be allowed to go home tomorrow and day after tomorrow. Please don’t fall for fake news.” DPM Ishwar Pokhrel, who is also the coordinator of the high-level task force to contain the novel coronavirus, rejected media reports yesterday at 6:29PM, via a Facebook post. He made it clear that no decision was made to allow people to leave Kathmandu. “Why did the media run after rumors? Why didn't they verify the news? It is their problem, not the government’s,” Thapa added. 

Media and others regularly quoted the verified page on major government announcements. If Thapa’s claim of the PM's team not being aware of the OPMCM’s verified Facebook page is true, then it adds another twist to the story. This is even more scary. 

“Only bad governments spread fake news. We cannot expect propaganda machinery protecting free press,” wrote Tara Nath Dahal, journalist and former president of the Federation of Nepalis Journalists (FNJ). Madhu Acharya, CEO of Sharecast Initiative Nepal, also tweeted about the incident. “We no longer have to imagine how low can the PM's media management team go when it can simply delete OPMCM’s verified page,” he wrote. 

These incidents raise serious questions on multiple fronts. One, why doesn't Baluwatar thoroughly investigate such cases and punish those involved? Second, how is it that the official OPMCM handle is being run by an immature bunch? Why can't the PMO have professional people take care of his social media platforms? 

At a time when the government is crying foul over some of the media's ‘fake news’; it was the government who spread fake news yesterday. People on social media are demanding swift investigation and action against those involved in the case.

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