'Unacceptable': White House on Harassment of Reporter Who Asked Modi Human Rights Question

A reporter pointed out that the harassment, which targeted Sabrina Siddiqui for her Muslim faith, was being led by politicians who were linked to the Indian government.

New Delhi: The White House on Monday, June 26, said that it was “unacceptable” that an US journalist was harassed after she asked a question to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his human rights record, especially with regard to minorities.

At a press briefing, an NBC correspondent asked about the online harassment of Sabrina Siddiqui, a reporter with The Wall Street Journal, after she asked the question at the joint press conference by Modi and his host, US President Joe Biden. She pointed out that the harassment, which targeted Siddiqui for her Muslim faith, was being led by politicians who were linked to the Indian government.

“We’re aware of the reports of that harassment. It’s unacceptable, and we absolutely condemn any harassment of journalists anywhere under any circumstances,” White House spokesperson on national security issues, John Kirby told reporters.

“That’s just, that’s completely unacceptable, and it’s antithetical to the principles of democracy that…were on display last week during the state visit,” he added.

Later, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked in the same press conference for more details on what the US President had spoken about with regard to human rights with Modi.

Jean-Pierre said that she was “not going to get into private conversation”, but added, “but I think we have made ourselves very clear on our view”.

There was further question on whether US President accepted the answer provided by Prime Minister Modi that there was no discrimination in India.

“…I think that it is for the prime minister to answer and for all of you to critique or write about it. I am not going to discuss that from here. We are certainly committed to the freedom of the press and that’s why we held a press conference last Friday. Which is why we thought that it was important for you all to hear from both not just from prez, but also from prime minister, and for a journalist to ask a question,” replied the WH press secretary.

The Wall Street Journal also issued a statement that Siddiqui is a “respected journalist known for her integrity and unbiased reporting”. “This harassment of our reporter is unacceptable, and we strongly condemn it,” said the statement.

Earlier, the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) had extended support to Siddiqui “who, like many South Asian and female journalists, is experiencing harassment for simply doing her job”. 

SAJA’s president Mythili Sampathkumar tweeted that Siddiqui’s question would have been expected by “PM’s Modi’s team and anyone keeping track of news”. “His response and how Indian journalists haven’t had the opp (opportunity) to ask him this in 9 years is what we should talk about more,” she posted.

Amit Malviya, the head of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) information cell, led the online attack on Sabrina Siddiqui. He highlighted her Muslim heritage and connections to Pakistan by dint of having a parent from that country. 

On Twitter, Malviya called Siddiqui’s question “motivated” and said that she was given a “fitting answer” by Modi. According to Malviya, Modi’s answer was a “blow” to the “toolkit gang,” a pejorative phrase used by the ruling party’s IT cell head to refer to those who have questioned the BJP and the prime minister on different issues, including discrimination against Muslims.

The press conference last Friday in White House was the first time that Modi was posed a question in a press conference since November 2015.

“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,” Siddiqui asked Modi, adding, “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 replied that he was “surprised” with the question.

“As President Biden also mentioned, India and America both have democracy in our DNA. Democracy is in our spirit and we live it and it’s written in our Constitution… Our government has taken the basic principles of democracy.  And on that basis, our constitution is made and the entire country runs on that — our constitution and government,” he said.

After Malviya’s tweet, other handles that are overtly pro-BJP and pro-Hindutva went after Siddiqui, labelling her as a ‘Pakistani Islamist’ and some saw a conspiracy also in her employer allowing her to pose that question to Modi. Incidentally, Modi’s only interview before his visit was with The Wall Street Journal.

Pro-BJP websites even published her report that she is the daughter of “Pakistani parents” and is “echoing the claims of Islamists.”

To ward off online attacks, Siddiqui even posted a photo which showed her cheering for the Indian cricket team along with her India-born father.