Everything about Kishore Kumar – the rogue computer science teacher at the centre of a political storm in Fiji – is bizarre. There is his appearance – the darting eyes and crescent beard that seems glued to his chin like a caricature villain in a C grade Bollywood movie. There is the staccato verbal delivery and wild language – the conspiratorial ranting, self-righteous finger pointing and obsession with sex. And most bizarre of all, the fact that someone who is a self-confessed lawbreaker and who is so obviously dodgy should have been supported by the FijiFirst government to the extent of being employed to teach at the Ratu Sukuna Memorial School, one of the country’s most prestigious academic institutions.
Kishore Kumar’s latest antic – which saw him taken into police custody on Tuesday night – is to claim that he has a sex video featuring the National Federation Party MP, Lenora Qereqeretabua, who Kumar describes as a “porn star”. That claim is vehemently denied by Qereqeretabua herself, who says she lodged a police complaint against Kumar in August that is only now being actioned. Yet this is just the latest in a string of bizarre episodes involving Kishore Kumar over the years into which even I have been dragged as a bit player.
In 2016, Kumar publicly accused me of being a “snake” associating with a “traitor” when he hacked into the email account of the British-based academic and journalist, Victor Lal, and found correspondence between the well-known blogger and me when I was part of the government’s communications effort. More on that shortly. But what is most striking about Kishore Kumar is the way in which his conduct has been tolerated, even enabled, at the highest levels of the FijiFirst government.
Kumar has repeatedly boasted about breaking the law, using the justification that he has done so in the government’s service. He has made a string of the most lurid allegations against upstanding individuals, including false accusations of pedophilia. He has been charged with criminal trespass, criminal intimidation and indecent assault for allegedly touching a woman’s breasts. Yet at no stage until this week had Kishore Kumar genuinely been brought to account.
It is truly astonishing that such a person should, by his own version of events, have been allowed to “become a father figure” to Year 11 students at Ratu Sukuna Memorial School. The FijiFirst government has some serious explaining to do. And while we await that explanation, all sorts of conjecture arises from what we do know. Had Kishore Kumar’s constant hero-worshipping of the Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, on social media made him something of a protected species? Perhaps FijiFirst was attracted to Kumar’s computer-hacking skills or feared that they might eventually be turned in its direction. Or maybe he was just so obviously unhinged that the last thing FijiFirst wanted to do was to make an enemy of him. Yet until the announcement on Monday that Kumar was being suspended from Ratu Sukuna on full pay and he was taken into custody the following day, he appears to have been able to act with impunity.
Since the events of 2016, the government has introduced an Online Safety Commission specifically to deal with the misuse of social media, headed by a former Miss Hibiscus, Ann Dunn-Baleilevuka, whose line minister is the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed- Khaiyum. Yet until yesterday, the AG and the Commission had been conspicuously silent amid the furore over Kishore Kumar’s claim about the sex tape involving Lenora Qereqeretabua – another former Miss Hibiscus. Qereqeretabua is a serving member of the Fijian parliament and clearly ought to have been given the full protection of the state from attacks of this nature. Yet the absence of that protection gives rise to the suspicion that being a member of the NFP made her less deserving – in the minds of some – of being shielded from the malevolence of a FijiFirst stalwart in the form of Kishore Kumar.
Chivalry, it seems, is also dead because having once been in a relationship with Lenora Qereqeretabua before they both married other people, one might have expected Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum to be more supportive merely out of sense of personal sentiment and consideration. Yet until yesterday, the AG had conspicuously avoided getting involved, leaving the Education Minister, Rosy Akbar, and her Permanent Secretary, Susan Kiran, to deal with the public fallout of Kumar’s sordid allegation and the extraordinary revelation that he made it while on the government payroll teaching his computer “skills” at Ratu Sukuna Memorial School.
Rosy Akbar claims she was not previously aware of Kumar’s malicious Facebook postings, pointing out that her ministry doesn’t have a full-time body to police the social media postings of the teachers it employs. Perhaps not. But the FijiFirst government has an entire Commission dedicated to policing social media. And it is hard to believe, given the target and the subject matter, that the Qereqeretabua sex tape wasn’t on its radar a lot sooner than has been acknowledged. If members of parliament aren’t safe from social media stalkers, who is?
Kishore Kumar should clearly have been the subject of a red alert and not just because his claims against Lenora Qereqeretabua are two months old. The extensive publicity given to his hacking campaign against Victor Lal four years ago and his open boast about breaking the law should have placed his Facebook page, Kishore Kumar Publications, on semi-permanent watch. Yet it wasn’t until yesterday (Thursday) that the Online Safety Commission confirmed to Vijay Narayan of Communications Fiji Limited/Fiji Village that a complaint had been lodged with it ” a few days ago” in relation to Kishore Kumar’s Facebook postings about Lenora Qereqeretabua and that it had begun an investigation. “A few days ago” when according to Qereqeretabua, she complained to the police in August? You don’t have to be an opposition supporter to think that the Commission has been decidedly less vigilant in dealing with Kumar than it has been targeting other social media miscreants.
The National Federation Party has a video of Kumar from 2017 in which he identifies himself as leader of the “Investigative Research Intelligence Unit” and the “Head Administrator of FijiFirst” on social media. On August 24 last year (2019), Kishore Kumar posted on Facebook that he was “team leader of our Social Media Investigative Researching Network of Fiji First Party”. To have gone public with such a claim on more than one occasion uncontested by anyone from FijiFirst is very odd to say the least. If he wasn’t working for FijiFirst, wouldn’t someone from the party have taken it upon themselves before now to set the record straight, given the controversy of his hacking of Victor Lal in 2016?
Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum finally broke his silence yesterday when he told FBC News that Kishore Kumar “does not work for the Party and the Party has nothing to do with him or his postings on Facebook”. He later told a news conference much the same thing – that Kishore Kumar is not employed by FijiFirst. Yet it was striking that the AG clung resolutely to the present tense. “He doesn’t work for us” clearly isn’t the same as “he never has”. So did Kumar ever work for the Party, either directly or as a volunteer? We know that Kumar had publicly offered FijiFirst “6000 hours of social media support” in the lead-up to the 2018 election. Did FijiFirst take up the offer? The AG’s comments yesterday didn’t make that clear.
I know from my own experience that Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum knows full well who Kishore Kumar is, including his self-confessed violations of the law in 2016. I raised Kumar’s behaviour myself with the AG and with the Police Commissioner, Brigadier-General Sitiveni Qiliho, in a three-way conversation at the time in the foyer of Suva’s Holiday Inn. I had just been “outed” as one of a number of people cited by Kumar as having been in contact with Victor Lal after he and others had hacked into Lal’s email account and taken down his Fijileaks website.
It wasn’t the embarrassment to me that Kumar had imagined because my correspondence with Lal wasn’t only innocuous but I had previously alerted the AG and my Qorvis bosses to the fact that I was in touch with him as part of my communications outreach. I specifically told Kumar in a public Facebook exchange that Fiji wasn’t North Korea and I would “converse with whoever I bloody well want”. Yet as well as being aggrieved by the hacking of my private emails and the disclosure of my email address, I was also concerned from a professional viewpoint about the impact on the government’s reputation of Kumar’s open boast on Facebook about illegally hacking Victor Lal’s emails for the government’s benefit and of having taken down a website that was widely read. It clearly had the potential to damage the government’s standing.
I informed the AG and the Police Commissioner that Lal had told me that he had alerted the British police unit responsible for cybercrime and was also looking to the local authorities in Fiji to address the matter. Yet both men were noncommittal and clearly indifferent to what had happened to Victor Lal. When Lal contacted the Fiji Police, he was told that he would have to travel to Suva to lodge a complaint in person, which was obviously problematic for someone based in the English university city of Oxford. And that, as far as I know, is where the matter rests.
Yet it’s worth revisiting precisely what Kishore Kumar said on July 29, 2016 because it is so obviously egregious and in my view, clearly deserved an official response. This is especially so given the government’s chronically punitive attitude towards its critics in similar circumstances.
This is clearly an admission of law-breaking in the government’s interest, all of which raises some serious questions. Was a blind eye turned to illegal behaviour because the target of Kishore Kumar’s cyberattack was a government critic in the form of Victor Lal? And is there selective application of the law in Fiji depending on the political allegiance of the individual in question? At face value, it certainly looks that way. And not only because Kishore Kumar’s public boast about breaking the law to protect FijiFirst’s position went unchallenged at the time but that he was subsequently given a government job.
It frankly beggars belief that given his record, Kishore Kumar wound up as a Year 11 teacher at Ratu Sukuna Memorial School, continuing his work for Kishore Kumar Publications in his spare time. As well as the sex tape allegation against Lenora Qereqeretabua, his Facebook page shows multiple postings on public issues of controversy, as well as unrelenting hero-worshipping of Frank Bainimarama, who he celebrates as the “greatest prime minister in Fijian history”. At his news conference yesterday, the Attorney General was at pains to suggest that a great many civil servants are outspoken on Facebook. Yet Kishore Kumar is clearly in a league of his own.
Once the sex tape claim developed into a national furore, Rosy Akbar, as the Minister, clearly had no choice but to suspend Kishore Kumar from Ratu Sukuna but has drawn criticism for keeping him on full pay. “As of now, investigations are proceeding into the Mr Kumar case and the procedure is that we issue them with enough time to show cause for their actions”, she told the Fiji Times. “It is only fair that he be given a chance to explain and defend himself”, she said.
The same applies to you, Minister. So could we please have an explanation from you as a matter of urgency in relation to the following:
1/ When did Kishore Kumar join the Ministry of Education as a teacher? What were the circumstances of his recruitment? Was the position advertised? And was Kumar interviewed in the normal course of events?
2/ Was the Ministry aware of the controversy surrounding his claims to have engaged in the illegal hacking of Internet websites in 2016 for the benefit of the FijiFirst government?
3/ Was the Ministry aware of his claims in 2017 and 2019 to be a member of FijiFirst’s social media team? (“Team leader of the FijiFirst Social Media Investigative Researching Intelligence Network”)
4/ Was the Ministry aware that Kishore Kumar had been charged by police in January 2018 with criminal trespassing, indecent assault and criminal intimidation?
5/ Does the Minister consider such a person as suitable to be employed as a teacher in the education system?”
On a wider scale, it is clearly not sufficient for the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, to merely say that Kishore Kumar “is not employed by FijiFirst”. The gravity of the situation demands a more detailed response and answers to the following questions:
1/ You have said that Kishore Kumar “does not work for FijiFirst”. But did he ever work for or perform work for the FijiFirst Party in either a paid or voluntary capacity?
2/ Kishore Kumar publicly pledged “6000 hours of social media support” to the FijiFirst Party in the lead-up to the 2018 election. Did the Party avail itself of that offer? And if so, what did he do?
3/ Are you aware that Kumar was employed by the Ministry of Education as a computer science teacher at Ratu Sukuna Memorial School? Did you have any knowledge of that appointment or did you facilitate it in any way?
4/ Given your knowledge since 2016 of Kishore Kumar’s boasts on social media to be committing illegal acts to benefit the FijiFirst government, what action, if any, did you take to stop these?
There are still many more questions than answers as to what role, if any, Kishore Kumar played in the FijiFirst Party, why the government didn’t act on his claim to be breaching the law on its behalf and how someone of his character can have been entrusted to be a “father figure” to Year 11 students at Ratu Sukuna Memorial School. And those questions aren’t going to go away without a more fulsome response.
As of last night (Thursday), Kishore Kumar was still in police custody in Suva as part of its investigation into the alleged Leonora Qereqeretabua sex tape. There is understandably widespread outrage at the manner in which the MP has been targeted, with a chorus of condemnation from women’s advocates in particular. Yet a potentially bigger story lurks in the background that goes to the heart of the government’s credibility, not only with the parents of Ratu Sukuna students but the nation as a whole. Who knew what and when about Kumar’s activities in general? How did he get the Ratu Sukuna job? And was a blind eye turned to wrongdoing?
This whole episode has a long way to run but one thing can already be said with a degree of certainty. That an advanced knowledge of computers and the ability to hack into the emails of others and take down websites can take even the most bizarre character like Kishore Kumar a long way in Fiji.
POSTSCRIPT: At his news conference yesterday, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum made further critical comments about me, once again breaching the first rule of PR not to elevate your opponents. Why he and the Prime Minister see it necessary to stress my unimportance two and a half years after I left the Qorvis domestic account in Fiji is one of life’s great mysteries. And I imagine that to underline my unimportance, the AG’s attack dogs at the CJ Patel Beijing Sun won’t be far behind.
As for a response to the AG’s gratuitous putdown, I really can’t do better than Victor Lal’s cheeky riposte on Fijileaks.