G20 Summit: Why did India block US journalists' access to President Biden?

Members of the White House Press Corps accompanying President Joe Biden to the G20 summit will be able to ask him questions in Vietnam on Monday, but not while in India

Reporters on US president Joe Biden's India trip won't get to question him or Narendra Modi despite press access requests to the administration (photo: IANS)
Reporters on US president Joe Biden's India trip won't get to question him or Narendra Modi despite press access requests to the administration (photo: IANS)

Uttam Sengupta

The American media and members of the White House Press Corps accompanying the US president to India are surprised and amused, if not shocked, at being told that they will not get a chance to put questions to even Joe Biden, let alone the host of the G20 summit.

The bilateral meeting between the US president and the Indian prime minister, held on the evening of 8 September, took place at Modi's residence and not in his office, they were told. The press was, of course, not invited therefore.

The Press Club of India and the National Media Centre in New Delhi, where they could have interacted with Indian media, have also been shut down for the summit.

Hence the US mediapersons' access would be restricted to the media centre at the venue and to official handouts.

The admission by the White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre that despite hard lobbying by the White House itself, as well the US national security advisor Jake Sullivan and the US ambassador to India Eric Garcetti, their Indian counterparts — the PMO, the Indian national security advisor and the Indian ministry for external affairs — all pleaded helplessness tells its own story.

“Ben LaBolt, the White House communications director, reached out to his counterpart. Jake Sullivan, who is — as you know, you just heard from him — our national security advisor, reached out to his counterpart as well,” Jean-Pierre added.

The American NSA, Jake Sullivan, added, “At the end of the day, we will have to kind of work through the parameters and protocols of these meetings in coordination and consultation with the host and, in particular, with the host (PM Modi) at his personal residence.”

CNN quoted Sullivan as saying jokingly that “the US spend(s) lives asking for pool sprays and other things" for reporters. 'Pool spray' is a term used for an event where photographers and other media persons are allowed to visit briefly with the US President or other officials when they are meeting leaders from other nations.

“We know how important it is for all of you to cover what the President is doing, especially abroad, and so we are... we are doing our darnedest, doing our best to do everything that we can to get you access,” Jean-Pierre said to the media on board Air Force One.

The Indian media, for its part, is not surprised. Prime Minister Modi in fact has never addressed a press conference in India during the whole nine years of his tenure. He has rarely answered questions while travelling abroad, for that matter.

On the momentous occasion in June when he was finally persuaded to answer one solitary question at the White House earlier this year, he did not give a straight answer and his followers trolled the Wall Street Journal reporter Sabrina Siddiqui, an American of mixed Indian and Pakistani heritage.

Siddiqui, herself a key member of the White House Press Corps, had asked Modi:

Mr. Prime Minister, India has long prided itself as the world’s largest democracy, but there are many human rights groups who say that your government has discriminated against religious minorities and sought to silence its critics.
As you stand here in the East Room of the White House, where so many world leaders have made commitments to protecting democracy, what steps are you and your government willing to take to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities in your country and to uphold free speech?

Modi had replied by saying that he was surprised at being asked this question and had categorically denied any discrimination in India.

At an international summit, it was expected that either Prime Minister Modi or his minister of external S Jaishankar would field questions from the international media.

But the schedule is apparently so tight that no such free-wheeling press conference appears to be on the cards.

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