First retweet blunder, then fake news from PM's office

Published On: April 11, 2020 06:43 AM NPT By: Republica  | @RepublicaNepal

Oli press advisor says their team was never even aware of the PMO's verified Facebook page

KATHMANDU, April 11: When the Modi government in India was struggling to calm down the country's Muslim population over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) bill late in December last year, Prime Minister KP Oli's twitter handle (@PM_Nepal) “accidentally” retweeted a tweet (by Indian journalist @DilliDurAst) in which leader of the Indian Congress party Sonia Gandhi criticized Modi for crackdowns on protests. This was on December 20, 2019.

After a social media uproar, PM Oli's press advisor Surya Thapa wrote on Facebook that they were launching a probe into the incident. The Cyber Bureau of Nepal Police also launched an investigation. But since then, no one has heard anything more about the investigation. Thapa said the Cyber Bureau has not reported back to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) regarding the matter.

The Indian ambassador to Nepal and the Indian embassy were surprised by the retweet, and it was quickly retracted. But the damage was already done.

Then came another blunder Thursday, from the government's Facebook page. The verified Facebook page of the PMO posted a note at 4 pm, saying that those stuck in Kathmandu due to the lockdown would be allowed to go home. Online news outlets quickly posted this breaking news. But then there came an update on the PMO's Facebook post, saying that the decision had been reversed because local and provincial governments did not come on board.

Soon after the PMO posted the status, ruling Nepal Communist Party leader and Province 5 Chief Minister Shankar Pokhrel wrote a contradictory post on Facebook, at 4:52 pm. He said that the report of the decision to allow people to leave Kathmandu was not true.

Meanwhile, Minister for Industry, Commerce and Supplies Lekhraj Bhatta said in a TV interview around the same time that the government was going to make it easy for people who were stuck in Kathmandu due to the extended lockdown to get back to their hometowns and villages. YOHO TV posted an audio conversation with the minister at 5:12 pm. So Bhatta's interview took place right after the PMO's Facebook announcement.

After Bhatta's TV interview footage went viral on social media, the head of the high-level coordination committee for preventing and containing COVID-19, Ishwar Pokhrel, posted a message on Facebook at 6:29 pm, saying no such decision had been taken. He termed the media reports baseless.

By the time Pokhrel posted the Facebook status, social media had become flooded with criticism of the government, with people showing both the PMO's official Facebook page post and Pokhrel's status.

The Ministry of Home Affairs also came into the picture, issuing a statement around 7 pm denying that there was any decision to allow people to leave Kathmandu. Then the verified Facebook page of the PMO was suddenly deleted around 8 pm. As news about the deletion went viral, some pointed a finger at the PM's IT consultant, Asgar Ali. Ali was already in the news after his IT company deleted news content critical of the PM's aides from a Kathmandu-based online news portal earlier last week.

“Although I'm not the authority concerned to speak on behalf of the PMO, I can say that such a Facebook page never existed. The PMO authorities can speak more about this,” press advisor Thapa said. He further said that there was no question of deleting a Facebook page when they had no idea of its existence in the first place.

Thapa said he heard about the Facebook page only after some online news outlets ran the news about the travel home decision Thursday. He alleged that online news outlets were in a rush to break news based on hearsay and without verifying with authentic sources.

However, online news outlets had run the story only after seeing the status on the PMO'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.” Pokhrel, the coordinator of the high-level task force against the novel coronavirus, rejected media reports yesterday at 6:29 pm via a Facebook post. He made it clear that no decision was taken to allow people to leave Kathmandu.

“Why did the media run after rumors? Why didn't they verify their news? It is their problem, not the government's,” Thapa added.

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

“Only bad governments spread fake news. We cannot expect propaganda machinery to protect a free press,” wrote Tara Nath Dahal, journalist and former president of the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ). Madhu Acharya, CEO of Sharecast Initiative Nepal, also tweeted about the incident. “We no longer need to imagine how low the PM's media management team can stoop when it can simply delete the PMO'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 PMO handle is being run by an incompetent bunch? Why can't the PMO have professionals handling its social media platforms?

At a time when the government is crying foul over 'fake news' in the media it turns out it was the government that spread fake news Thursday. People on social media are calling for swift investigations and for heads to roll.

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