It is not surprising that Nepal’s media is up in arms against China’s Ambassador to Kathmandu for her statement that all but threatened an editor of a leading English language newspaper. The facts are these. The Kathmandu Post, a member of the Asia News Network like this newspaper, republished an article carried by another network member, the Korea Herald, which suggested that China’s secrecy had made the coronavirus crisis worse.

Written by a former US Ambassador to NATO, the article questioned China’s delay in reporting the virus, its initial efforts to clamp down on the outbreak and argued that “the fact China chose secrecy and inaction turned the possibility of an epidemic into a reality.” This was a view to which the author was entitled; indeed, it was an opinion that Korea Herald was entitled to publish and Kathmandu Post to re-publish.

If there was any cavil that the Chinese authorities had, they ought to have voiced these to the publications and sought the right to reply. Instead, China’s embassy in Nepal chose to go public with a statement (even to the extent of posting it on Twitter, a platform banned in China) that accused the Kathmandu Post of “malicious intention”, of deliberately smearing Beijing’s efforts to fight the virus and for “viciously” attacking China’s political system. But it is the last three sentences of the statement that cause grave concern.

It said: “It is regrettable that Mr Anup Kaphle, Chief Editor of The Kathmandu Post has always been biased on China-related issues. This time he went as far as disregarding the facts and becoming a parrot of some anti-China forces and, therefore, his ulterior purpose is destined to failure. The Chinese Embassy in Nepal… reserves the right of further action.” On Wednesday, 17 Nepalese editors invoked press freedoms guaranteed by the country’s Constitution to say, “We disagree with the disparagement and threats issued by naming any particular editor. We condemn such an act.”

Former Nepali diplomats too joined issue with the Chinese ambassador to say she had crossed the line of permissible conduct by issuing what was clearly a threat against a publication and its editor. While many Nepali responses are critical of the Chinese statement, members of the country’s ruling Communist Party believe that the media is over-reacting. One response on Twitter to the Chinese statement wondered if China’s embassy in Korea had reacted similarly to the original oped piece.

The Kathmandu Post in an editorial placed the threat in context by describing the statement as “a rebuke to not bite the hand that feeds. It is about an ostensibly friendly neighbour testing the waters to see if Nepalis and Nepali society will tolerate this kind of intrusion into values that Nepal holds sacrosanct. If Nepal is to keep its sovereignty, it needs to ensure that no foreign nation, no matter how powerful, gets to dictate what principles Nepalis uphold.” That says it all.