US President Joe Biden was welcomed warmly by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday ahead of a G20 summit in New Delhi, but journalists were blocked from covering the key meeting.
Media access to such bilateral encounters on the sidelines of major summits like the G20 is always tightly controlled, but it is rarely blocked entirely.
The incident comes after protracted negotiations were needed before Indian officials agreed to Modi taking one question from US reporters at a press briefing when he made a state visit to Washington in June — the Indian leader rarely if ever takes questions from foreign media.
The White House “pool” of journalists accompanying Biden usually attends the start of face-to-face meetings such as Friday’s, hearing preliminary statements, taking a few photographs — and asking some questions.
“The President believes the free press is the pillar of our democracy,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told journalists on board the airplane taking Biden to India, saying they were doing all they could to secure media access.
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After landing, Biden headed to the Indian leader’s residence, but journalists travelling with him were told to remain outside.
“We in the US government work hard to ensure and obtain access for US journalists to everything the President does,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had said on board Air Force One.
“What we can pledge to you is what’s in our control — which is ensuring that we are transparent and comprehensive in our readout of what the two leaders discussed.”
At the Washington press conference with Biden in June, the one question to Modi came from Wall Street Journal reporter Sabrina Siddiqui, who asked the Hindu nationalist about accusations of repression of Muslims in India and the country’s record on human rights.
“In India’s democratic values, there is absolutely no discrimination, neither on basis of caste, creed, or age or any kind of geographic location,” Modi replied.
Siddiqui was subsequently subjected to “intense online harassment”, the White House Correspondents’ Association said in a statement, “including from people with ties to the prime minister’s political party”.