Presstitutes, take a bow.
One question from a journalist, a section of whose Indian counterparts has been labelled "presstitutes" by a minister in the Narendra Modi government, has outlasted the much-trumpeted aftertaste of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's state dinner at the White House.
Less than a week after Modi bid farewell to the US President and his mansion, the White House has found it necessary to not only denounce the online harassment of The Wall Street Journal reporter who asked Modi about minority rights and free speech but also showcase the press conference as an abiding symbol of media freedom.
"...We’re certainly — here, at the White House, under this administration — we’re committed to the freedom of the press, which is why we had the press conference last week. So just want to remind folks that’s why we had the press conference last week," White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday at the media briefing.
Jean-Pierre returned to the theme later in response to a question on whether President Joe Biden accepted Modi's answer to the question asked by Sabrina Siddiqui, the Journal's reporter. Modi had flatly denied any discrimination in India.
The White House spokesperson said in the course of her reply: "What I know is that we are committed — we are certainly committed to the freedom of the press, which is why we had — we held a press conference last Thursday, which is why we thought it was important for you all to be — to hear from both, not just from the President, but also from the Prime Minister, and for journalists to be able to ask a question."
This is the closest the White House has come to suggesting that it did play a role in persuading Modi to take questions at what was described as a "joint press conference" on Thursday. Both Modi and Biden had fielded two questions each.
Barring two earlier exceptions in his nine years as Prime Minister, Modi has refused to take questions from the media during such bilateral engagements.
This time round, the US side appears to have insisted on the two principals taking a question each from the media of both countries. Siddiqui was picked from the American side to pose a question.
The issue came up on Monday because of the online trolling of Siddiqui. No prizes for guessing who’s behind the harassment.
“It’s unacceptable,” said John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications in the White House, when asked on Monday for a reaction to the “intense online harassment” of Siddiqui from “people inside India”, including politicians who “have associations with the pro-Modi government”. The questioner also mentioned that “in part they’ve been targeting her because of her Muslim faith and questioning her own heritage”.
Stating that the White House is aware of the harassment, Kirby said: “We absolutely condemn any harassment of journalists anywhere under any circumstances. That’s… completely unacceptable. And it’s antithetical to the very principles of democracy that… were on display last week during the state visit.”
The journalist who had sought a response from the White House on Siddiqui’s harassment had framed the question in the context of democracy and wanted a reaction also to the fact that “a journalist posing a question to a democratic leader is getting that kind of pushback”.
Later during the briefing, Jean-Pierre, the White House spokesperson, stepped in to suo motu add to what Kirby had said. After explaining the reason the press conference was held, Jean-Pierre said: “And just to also repeat what you all heard from my colleague: We certainly condemn any efforts of intimidation or harassment of a journalist or any journalist that is just trying to do their job.”
Amit Malviya, the in-charge of the BJP’s IT cell, had described Siddiqui’s question to Modi as “motivated”. In a tweet, he suggested that Siddiqui was a member of the “toolkit gang” — the pejorative that the ruling ecosystem uses for its critics.
Malviya’s tweet opened the floodgates and pro-BJP handles dug into Siddiqui’s Twitter timeline to pull out her old tweets to nail her, besides dwelling on her Muslim background. She was called “Pakistani” and “anti-India”.
On Monday, The Wall Street Journal also issued a statement in Siddiqui’s support. “The Wall Street Journal’s Sabrina Siddiqui is a respected journalist known for her integrity and unbiased reporting. This harassment of our reporter is unacceptable and we strongly condemn it.”
Several other Washington-based correspondents also weighed in. Mythili Sampathkumar, president of the South Asian Journalists Association, tweeted: “Sabrina Siddiqui asked a fair question, one PM Modi’s team and anyone keeping track of news should have expected. His response and how Indian journalists haven’t had the opp to ask him this in 9 years is what we should talk about more.”
At Monday’s briefing, the White House spokesperson, probably not wanting to be seen as publicly meddling in the internal affairs of another country, did not give a direct answer to the question on whether Biden accepted Modi’s reply on minorities in India but her response did leave room for interpretation.
Q: “To follow up on the press freedom issue that you touched on, can you give us a sense of the discussion between President Biden and Prime Minister Modi about that? What did they discuss and what did President Biden say to him about not only press freedom, but the other human rights issues that are so clear in India right now?”
White House spokesperson Jean-Pierre: “So, as we’ve said many times, the President will never shy away on having those conversations with a world leader... when it comes to human rights. He has done that throughout the past two years and through his career as a Vice-President and certainly as a senator.
“I’m not going to get into private conversations, but I think we have made ourselves very clear here on our view. And I’ll just leave it there.”
Q: “Did the President accept Prime Minister Modi’s answer to Sabrina about the human rights issues and attacks on Muslims and others in his country?
Jean-Pierre: You know, we were asked this question last week on Friday, and I think that is for the Prime Minister to answer and for you all to, you know, critique or write about it. I’m not going to discuss that from here.”
The spokesperson then reaffirmed the White House’s commitment to the freedom of the press and underscored why the joint press conference was held on Thursday.