'Unusual Situation' as US Press 'Sequestered in Van', Not Allowed to Access Modi-Biden Meeting

Modi, who likes to describe India as the 'mother of democracy', has yet to address a press conference in Delhi after taking office nine and a half years ago. A single question fielded by him in the US in June resulted in massive trolling of the questioner by the BJP and its supporters.

New Delhi: That Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will never hold a press conference is accepted as a fact of life by Indian journalists. But on Friday, reporters accompanying US President Joe Biden on his visit to India for the G20 summit were also given a taste of the same medicine.

Reuters reports that Biden headed into a closed-door meeting with Modi on September 8, shortly after arriving in New Delhi. As Biden and Modi met at the prime minister’s residence, “the US press corps was sequestered in a van, out of eyesight of the two leaders – an unusual situation for the reporters and photographers who follow the U.S. president at home and around the world to witness and record his public appearances.”

Humera Pamuk, the Reuters foreign policy reporter covering the US State Department tweeted how “questions about press access on the India trip have been persistent, after the official White House schedule did not show that the usual pool of reporters would be allowed in for the start of the Modi-Biden meeting.”

On the Air Force One flight to India, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters, “Look, guys, we are doing everything that we can to make sure that there is access.” 

As per the transcript put out by the White House, the press on board Air Force One appeared peeved about not being able to operate as they normally do in other situations. It fell to press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and national security advisor  Jake Sullivan to face the US press pool.

A press person in the corps asked, “Going back to Modi and American values, our understanding is that press access to the bilat [bilateral meet] will be pretty limited, if not non-existent. Can you detail what, from the US side, you guys are doing to press for press access and why Biden would meet with Modi if there are no reporters allowed to participate in a pool spray or something like that?” 

‘Will have to work through the parameters and protocols’

Sullivan referred to the meeting with Modi and new “protocols he’s set out.”

He said, “Taking place at the prime minister’s residence. So, it is unusual in that respect. This is not your typical bilateral visit to India with meetings taking place in the prime minister’s office and an entire program. This is the host of the G20 hosting a significant number of leaders, doing so in his home, and he has set out the protocols he’s set out.”

In response to another question, if “there been an instance where President Biden, as president, has had a bilateral meeting without a pool spray that – that you can think of?”

Sullivan responded that “at multilateral meetings, there have been times he’s [the US president] gone and sat down with foreign leaders. In fact, I can think of instances where I’ve snapped photos because it’s just been me in the room with the foreign leader and President Biden.”

Sullivan tried to speak of “the dynamic nature of these multilateral summits, press – press access issues tend to be different than they are in typical bilateral fashion.” And so, hinted at “circumstance different from previous instances where the president and Prime Minister Modi have stood before the press.” He hastened to add that in their dozen meetings, “This is not really a reflection of either the US-India relationship or some larger question of press access.”

But faced with a persistent press, Sullivan conceded, “We consider this a serious issue. You guys have raised it with us. We take that extremely seriously. I personally take it extremely seriously. We are doing what we can, but 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 at his personal residence.”

But the on-board reporters did not let them go, before getting them to say they had asked for a “pool spray”. Pool spray refers to photographers and other media persons who are allowed to come in to the room briefly with the US president or other top US government officials, especially when meeting with leaders or high-level officials from other countries.

Excerpts from the US Press Briefing on board Air Force One are as follows:

Q: Did you say the request was made, though? Did you guys ask for a pool spray at this particular event, and you were told no?

  1. SULLIVAN: Of course. We ask for pool sprays — we spend our lives asking —
  2. JEAN-PIERRE: Seriously.
  3. SULLIVAN: — for pool sprays and —
  4. JEAN-PIERRE: All the time guys. All the time.
  5. SULLIVAN: — other things, of course. Of course.

What protocol says

In India, the traditional protocol is for bilateral talks to be held at Hyderabad House,  followed by a limited question and answer session with the media in another hall at the same venue. The questions have ended post-2014, but the other parts of the protocol have remained unchanged for decades.

When the two leaders sit down for talks in India, the official photographer is called from the Indian side and a representative pool reporter from the other country. Questions are not asked, but it is only a photo-op. It is also labelled as such in the media advisory.

Naturally, every country has their own protocol practice. In  the White House, reporters are allowed to come into the room when the two principals are seated and allowed to ask questions too.

Since that is not the protocol in India, a senior MEA official and a corresponding White house press officer had once exchanged strong words, almost going towards a physical squabble, when the US side tried to get their reporters into the hall after the leaders had sat down for talks. This was during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s term as prime minister when the US President Bill Clinton was on his historical visit.

The prime minister’s house is sometimes used for diplomatic meetings, but the media has never been invited there, whether in the UPA’s two terms or after 2014. On an extremely rare occasion, the prime minister hosts a private dinner as a special gesture for a visiting dignitary, such as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did for the Obamas. But that too was a closed door event, similar to that of Rashtrapati Bhavan state dinners, where no government has called the media to ask questions to leaders.

It is a well-known practice in diplomacy that the visiting leader has to follow the protocol of the host government. That’s why the Indian side did not have much choice but to agree when the White House insisted earlier this year that questions be posed by the media to Prime Minister Modi and President Biden, as that is the protocol in the United States.

Media freedom

Thus Modi took his first press conference question in nearly nine years as prime minister in the White House when he visited there this June. 

That one question and answer became news and the journalist Sabrina Siddiqui was trolled viciously for raising the question she did on the safety of minorities and democracy. Questions regarding her parentage were raised on social media by right-wing trolls as well as leaders of the BJP. The White House had to come out and condemn the attacks on her.

Parallel to the G20, in India, an M-20, or a Media Freedom Summit was also organised online on September 6, (Wednesday) across nine time zones by independent journalists and senior editors from G20 countries. The purpose and timing of the M20 Media Freedom Summit was to ensure that the media’s shared concerns about press freedom across G20 member countries do not get ignored when G20 leaders meet in New Delhi. Collectively emphasising the importance of freedom of the press and finding ways to help each other defend this freedom is critical at this time since the media is coming under legal, political and financial pressure in many G20 countries, said the M20 Organising Committee, an ad hoc body with 10 editors from India and a former judge of the Supreme Court as its members.

India is at present at 161 on a 180-country World Press Freedom Index. Among the G20 countries, it is in the bottom five, just above Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China.