It was no doubt a meticulously invented fraud to establish herself as an epitome of honesty, and she succeeded to become famous overnight.President Ram Baran Yadav personally called her to congratulate how proud the nation was over her honesty. Chief Justice Ram Prasad Shrestha did not lag behind. Media ‘broke the news’ and wrote editorials one after another eulogizing the honesty she displayed at a time when it has almost become extinct in the public life.
Anuja Baniya, a 22- year old girl from eastern Nepal’s Dharan, became an overnight ‘Hero’ when two dailies: Kantipur and Kathmandu Post of the Kantipur Publications, featured her on their front pages, relating her story of how she found an unclaimed bag containing 9.1 million rupees , and promptly handed over the bag to its rightful owner. The news said she also declined to accept Rs. 200,000 that the grateful owner gave her as a reward for her honesty.
But subsequent developments unfolded what was reported was only a much cruder version of Janet Cooke episode, a total fiction, re-invented in Nepal. Cooke who was associated with The Washington Post had received Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for her write up ‘Jimmy’s world’ printed a year earlier portraying the plight of an 8-year old heroine addict with gripping details of his suffering that inspired the then mayor of D.C and other public spirited people to explore if anything could be done for Jimmy. The drive was abandoned when they realised Jimmy was non-existent. Cooke returned the Pulitzer prize within days of her receiving it. The Publication and Bob Woodward—a celebrity in U S journalism –apologised for publishing the feature, and recommending her for the prestigious award ‘in good faith’.
Anuja was not a journalist, but the fiction that she was able to plant and circulate with herself at the centre through the media won her kudos from everywhere. She said she found the bag lying in the bus, traced the real owner, and returned 9.1 million rupees as well as ‘diamond necklace’. Investigations have revealed like Jimmy, Purusottam Pokharel of Sitapaila in Kathmandu just does not exist. Nor is there any witness to the lost, found and handed-over episode. She said, the media reported, and the world believed. But in the same manner that she was eulogized, she is being vilified now. She is portrayed as a compulsive liar within less than a week. The questions that should have been asked before the publication of the report are being asked now: why would someone with that much amount of money and diamond necklace travel in a public bus? Bank officials say that much amount in 1000 rupees currency notes will weigh 14 kilograms, and not fit in a bag as claimed by Anuja.
In his telephone call on April 21, a day after the dailies carried the story, President Yadav asked, “Nani Anuja, Malai Chineu?, Ma Nepal ko Rastrapati Ram Baran Yadav.” (Daugther Anuja, do you recognize me? I am Ram Baran Yadav, president of Nepal). He said, “the exemplary honesty that you have shown will take you much higher in your life.” Yadav also asked her to come to Kathmandu and meet him.
To save the President and many high officials who believed the story initially and congratulated her in good faith, the local administration has begun to dig the whole truth and motive behind the ‘plant’. Andfor a change, the two dailies came with an apology, something they have avoided doing in the past, although blunders—deliberate or inadvertent— demanded it many times. However, it is not the Kantipur
group alone , but other media including dailies which followed up the event subsequently failed to detect the fraud . Most of them printed the story of President and the Chief Justice congratulating Anuja with the background information that the two dailies had come out with while ‘breaking the news’.
Apology for such blunder should be welcomed, and certain lapses considered not unusual in the profession. But the current chapter has not been closed yet. It would bring in debate the way people in high position should be responding purely on the basis of media reports, and media would continue to be ‘ridiculed; despite apology, that was not unconditional. It will continue to be ridiculed for ‘false reporting’, and many wrong-doers, exposed by the media even rightly, would take shelter with the plea that ‘media’ does ‘misreport’.