A Nepalese newspaper on Thursday slammed Beijing for trying to muzzle free speech after it was accused of "deliberate" and "malicious" smearing by the Chinese embassy in the Himalayan nation.

The embassy had sharply criticised the Kathmandu Post on Tuesday for publishing a syndicated column which argued that China's authoritarian system of government had worsened the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

The reaction from the embassy came as China ordered three Wall Street Journal reporters to leave the country over an op-ed headline that Beijing had deemed racist, one of the country's harshest moves against foreign media in years.

"The Chinese embassy did not just express its discontent with the article published; it went so far as to disparage the Post's Editor-in-Chief and employ threatening language," the Kathmandu Post said in an editorial.

"The undiplomatic -- and frankly menacing -- manner in which the Chinese embassy made its objections known is condemnable," it added.

"The actions of the embassy... can be perceived as a direct threat to the Nepali people's right to a free press, freedom of opinion and freedom of expression."

"China can... express its reservations," the paper said. "What it cannot do, especially in a democracy, is demand that articles be taken down and then issue veiled threats against the editor of a foreign newspaper."

The commentary that sparked Chinese anger -- titled "China's secrecy has made the coronavirus crisis much worse" -- was written for the Chicago Tribune by Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO.

The Kathmandu Post has accused the Chinese embassy in Nepal of trying to muzzle free speech
The Kathmandu Post has accused the Chinese embassy in Nepal of trying to muzzle free speech AFP / PRAKASH MATHEMA

The Kathmandu Post had republished the piece with an illustration of a 100 yuan note, altered to show communist China's founder Mao Zedong wearing a face mask.

The article "deliberately smeared the efforts of the Chinese government and people... and even viciously attacked the political system of China", the Chinese embassy had said.

It added that the Kathmandu Post's chief editor Anup Kaphle "has always been biased on China-related issues" and had become "a parrot of some anti-China forces".

"The Chinese Embassy in Nepal has made solemn representations to the newspaper and himself and reserves the right of further action."

Eighteen Nepali editors issued a statement Wednesday against the embassy's statement -- particularly the targeting of Kaphle.

"Nepal's constitution has guaranteed full press freedom, and we are committed to exercising and protecting it," they said.

Beijing has been wooing Nepal with pledges of development in the Himalayan nation, pumping millions of dollars into projects ranging from roads to hydropower plants.

Its embassy in Nepal has traditionally refrained from commenting on internal affairs.