How one Pokhara resident led a smear campaign to get an American kicked out of the countryAfter his romantic advances were rejected, one individual used his influence with an online news portal to smear and discredit a foreigner, a month-long Post investigation has revealed.
Shuvam Dhungana & Pranaya SJB Rana
On December 30, Tandav News, a Pokhara-based online portal, published a story alleging that an American citizen on a business visa was involved in raising “illegal donations” in Pokhara. The portal followed up with another report on January 1, detailing how the American was “making a profit in the name of social work”. Then, another story on January 6 regarding their “investigation strategy”. Since then, Tandav News has published at least seven articles on the American citizen.
But according to Michelle Alexandra Welsch, the American citizen in question, none of Tandav’s allegations have any merit to them, as they’ve been investigated by the Pokhara police, the Kaski District Administration Office and the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority, all of whom found nothing wrong.
In a month-long investigation, the Post looked into the allegations that Tandav News made against Welsch, speaking to all parties involved and the concerned authorities, and corroborating accounts with documents obtained from Welsch. What has instead come to light is a concerted effort on the part of a disgruntled individual to use his influence with an online portal to discredit and expel Welsch from the country on spurious grounds and baseless allegations.
How it all started
Thirty-five-year-old Welsch, from Colorado in the United States, first came to Nepal in August 2013 on a tourist visa. She visited Everest Base Camp and lived for two weeks at the Matepani Gumba, a monastery in Pokhara. She was in Nepal for nearly four months, during which time, she fell in love with the country, Welsch told the Post.
Welsch came back to Nepal in July 2014 and this time, applied for a volunteering permit. She received authorisation to volunteer at the Matepani Gumba, from September 2014 to July 2015, according to a copy of her passport obtained by the Post.
Before she came back to Nepal, she started an IndieGogo campaign in February 2014 to raise money to install solar panels at the Matepani Gumba, for which she raised over $10,000. This well-intentioned campaign would eventually come back to haunt her.
“We provided students with new books, supplies, and paint for classrooms; we even looked for ways to improve leadership capabilities of some of the older/teenage monks, like taking them on a rafting excursion and birthday celebrations,” Welsch told the Post.
After this, she conducted research at Tribhuvan University on ‘Interest and intent in pursuing higher education: Nepali students’ perceptions on study abroad experiences’, for which she received a visa for two years from March 2016 to March 2018.
During her time in Nepal, she had gotten involved with an organisation that offered language training, run by Ngawang Gurung, a Pokhara local whom she had met while volunteering at Matepani. In April, she applied and received a business visa, and jointly registered a new business with Gurung as a partner—Learning House.
Learning House, a private limited company providing skills and language training and offering training seminars, was registered on April 8, 2018, under the number 5105, as per the Office of the Company Registrar.
During the process of getting Learning House up and running, Welsch and Gurung met with Raju Bogati, a resident of Lamachaur in Pokhara and proprietor of Level Next, a videography and photography company. Bogati, who is in his mid-30s, offered to shoot pictures and videos for Learning House and Welsch agreed.
“We first met Bogati at a programme in 2017 and Michelle and Bogati became friends,” Gurung told the Post. “He took many pictures and videos at our programmes and refused to accept payment. We had to forcefully pay him for his work.”
Gurung believes that Bogati was trying to impress Welsch.
A friendship soured
According to Welsh, she never entertained Bogati as anything more than a friend. They were close but she never intended to get into a relationship with him.
But in around March 2018, Bogati began to express romantic feelings for Welsch and she rejected his advances. Gurung confirmed to the Post that Bogati had made romantic advances towards Welsch that she had rebuffed.
Over the next year, Bogati would continue to message Welsch on social media, constantly expressing his feelings despite her rejection. Welsch provided the Post access to these messages, which were numerous and incessant.
Gurung too said that he knew Welsch was receiving inappropriate messages from Bogati and that Welsch had reported feeling harassed.
“She had even asked if we should file a complaint with the police, but after consulting with others, we decided to not involve the police and ignore it for the moment,” said Gurung.
Bogati also began to post veiled comments aimed at Welsch on social media. Although they did not call out Welsch by name, there were clear insinuations towards her, with references to a foreign resident in Pokhara and her alleged relationships with other men.
After more than a year of sending messages and posting on social media, on December 8, 2019, Bogati filed a complaint with the Pokhara immigration office, alleging that Welsch was working illegally in the country. The department, however, did not take any action after it confirmed that she was in Nepal on a business visa and was working per the conditions of her visa, according to Gurung.
When the immigration department took no action, Bogati went to the Kaski District Administration Office on December 26 with the same complaint, and later, the Kaski District Police Office.
The Kaski District Police Office confirmed that there was a complaint against Welsch but that she too had filed a complaint with the police.
“The complaint against Michelle is that she is here on a business visa but is collecting funds,” said Superintendent Dan Bahadur Karki, chief of the Kaski District Police Office.
“An investigation is underway but we have not found anything suspicious until now.”
The police said that Welsch too had filed a harassment case against Bogati after the Tandav report came out, but they were unable to take any action as the social media messages she presented as evidence were nearly two years old.
The Kaski Chief District Officer too said that they had found nothing untoward with Welsch’s activities.
According to Ramesh Kumar KC, who was Kaski chief district officer at the time, Welsch is residing legally in Nepal.
“A nameless complaint was filed at our office that Michelle was residing illegally in Nepal. We investigated but didn't find any fault,” said KC, who has now been transferred to the Department of Immigration as director-general. “Although the complaint alleged that she was collecting money illegally, we found no substantial evidence to take action.”
According to KC, the district office had even published a public notice asking anyone with complaints against Welsch to come forward, but no one did.
“After the local media wrote that the administration was not taking any action against her, we once again formed an investigation team, which did not find any evidence but suggested that her visa not be extended as she was surrounded by controversies,” said KC.
When the Post spoke to Bogati over the phone, he freely admitted that he was the one behind the complaint and the news reports. He said that he felt the need to take action after he found out that Welsch was on a business visa.
“When I found out she was residing in Nepal on a business visa, I was shocked as I thought she was doing social work here,” Bogati told the Post. “I texted her, asking her to leave the country but instead she told me that she would file a complaint with the police for sending her messages.”
Bogati went to the immigration department, the chief district office and the district police office but when none of them took any action, he decided to go to the media.
“I even filed a complaint at the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority but nothing happened. None of the government offices took action so I used the media,” Bogati told the Post. “As I had designed the logo as well as the website for Tandav News, I knew reporter Madhav Bhusal, whom I spoke to and gave information. Then, they wrote the article.”
Based on Bogati’s complaint, Tandav News alleged that Welsch was raising money from abroad in order to fund her for-profit company, Learning House. They pointed to the IndieGogo fundraising campaign from 2014 as proof.
According to Arjun Giri, editor of Tandav News, their reports were based on ‘complaints’ against Welsch. He refused to elaborate further.
“Our reporter received information about a complaint against Michelle,” Giri told the Post over the phone.
Tandav News began to publish a series of articles when they received more information from a “source” that she was raising funds abroad, said Giri.
When the first report came out on December 30, 2019, Welsch said she was traumatised, as there were baseless allegations made against her and her work. She contacted the police, who told her to reach out to the Press Council, as media reports were not under their jurisdiction, she said.
On February 3, 2020, Welsch, her lawyer and Giri from Tandav News held a meeting at the Press Council in Kathmandu.
“The meeting went on for seven hours and by the end, I was exhausted,” said Welsch. “In the end, all the council did was ask them to remove a photo from their news report.”
Giri confirmed that they had held a meeting at the Press Council and that they had been asked to remove a photo.
“But since the photo was taken from her official website, we didn’t remove the photo either,” said Giri.
Kishor Shrestha, chair of the Press Council, confirmed that the council had immediately called Tandav editor Giri for a meeting after receiving a complaint from Welsch.
“The meeting ran for six hours and Giri agreed to remove the news and photo from the site in the beginning but Michelle demanded an apology and Giri refused,” Shrestha told the Post. “That’s all we could do, as we cannot close a registered online portal.”
According to Shrestha, he has received many texts and emails from Welsch and has repeatedly called on Giri to at least remove Welsch’s photo.
“But he [Giri] replies that the news is authentic and said that immigration has already ordered her deportation,” said Shrestha.
Bogati further admitted to have personally approached other news outlets, including Setopati and AB News, with his complaints regarding Welsch. Both Setopati and AB News published a number of stories about Welsch, repeating the allegations that Tandav News made without any supporting evidence.
Yuvaraj Shrestha, the Pokhara reporter who wrote the Setopati stories, told the Post that he had followed the Tandav reports from the very beginning and later received detailed information about Welsch at a press meet organised by Bogati.
“After getting information, I talked to the CDO, immigration office and district police for verification and wrote the story,” he said.
The latest Setopati report quotes then director-general Eshor Raj Poudel of the Department of Immigration as saying that Welsch has been asked to close her company and return home to the US.
But when the Post reached out to Poudel, he contradicted the Setopati report.
“The decision to deport her [Welsch] has not been made until now,” Poudel told the Post. “But if there is so much controversy surrounding one foreigner, then there is obviously something wrong.”
Poudel said that he had received information that Welsch was involved in raising money, which is illegal as she is here on a business visa.
“Although we haven’t made a decision yet, we have the authority to not provide her with a visa extension due to the controversies. But we will investigate the case without any bias and by following all legal procedures.”
Poudel was very recently replaced by Ramesh Kumar KC, the former Kaski chief district officer.
Poudel’s response is reminiscent of the case of Robert Penner, a Canadian national who was evicted from Nepal in 2016 for being critical of the Nepal government. Although no formal charges were levied against Penner, his work visa was summarily revoked and he was asked to leave the country for “inciting disharmony through social media”.
As with Penner, the case against Welsch appears largely to be based on individual complaints, rather than hard evidence.
Bhes Raj Neupane, Welsch’s lawyer, believes that Welsch is being persecuted by Bogati because of his own personal issues with her.
“Bogati has personal issues with Michelle,” said Neupane. “He tried everything possible but when none of the government departments found anything illegal, he misinformed the local media.”
Welsch is in Nepal on a business visa as a foreign investor, said Neupane.
“She brought investment in Nepal from her personal account with permission from the central bank,” he said. “She hasn’t taken a single paisa out of Nepal. There is nothing illegal here.”
According to Semanta Dahal, an advocate and legal policy expert, as long as foreign investment is brought into Nepal through legal channels, they can do business here, provided they have a business visa.
“The process to register a business should be followed properly, from FDI to tax registration to company registration. As long as everything is done properly, then there is no problem running a business here,” said Dahal.
The Post saw a copy of a letter from Nepal Rastra Bank authorising Welsch to bring in foreign investment.
Bogati has alleged that Welsch had organised various events in Pokhara, charging for tickets, but this is not illegal either, according to Neupane.
Bogati himself admitted that the entire issue started because of a personal reason, but he denied ever having romantic feelings for her.
“That is just a rumour. I filed a complaint after she threatened that she would file a harassment complaint with the police,” he told the Post. “Of course it started as a personal issue; no one accuses unknown people. She used to visit my home and had a good relationship with my family. She played with me emotionally.”
Welsch, for her part, says she is traumatised. An emotional Welsch told the Post that she feared for her safety as a single woman living by herself and that she had had to move to Kathmandu to live with friends as she didn’t feel safe in Pokhara anymore.
She says she just wants the entire episode to end. More than a hundred days after Tandav published the first news report, it remains prominently displayed on their homepage. All the while she is maintaining a positive attitude and hoping that the truth will come out, she said.
“I hope my story can help other women and victims of harassment have the strength to find their own voice and get support,” said Welsch. “Bad things happen and can happen to anyone, no matter where you are in the world or what your background is. You can let those things define you, or you can choose to try to make something good come out of it.”