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White House, Reporters Condemn Harassment of Journalist Over Questions to Indian PM

Wall Street Journal reporter Sabrina Siddiqui asks U.S. President Joe Biden and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi questions during a joint press conference at the White House in Washington, June 22, 2023.

The White House has condemned an online harassment campaign targeting a Wall Street Journal reporter who asked Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi about his human rights record during a joint press conference last week.

During the event with President Joe Biden and Modi at the White House last Thursday, reporter Sabrina Siddiqui asked the prime minister about discrimination against religious minorities in India.

Siddiqui then became the target of online abuse, primarily from Modi’s supporters. The White House Correspondents’ Association says the reporter has been “subjected to intense online harassment,” with people wanting to know the motive for the question and asking about her religion and heritage.

Biden administration officials earlier this week denounced the harassment.

“It’s completely unacceptable, and it’s antithetical to the very principles of democracy that ... were on display last week during the state visit,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre later said, “We’re committed to the freedom of the press” and “condemn any efforts of intimidation or harassment of a journalist.”

Her questions

At the press conference, Siddiqui said, “There are many human rights groups who say your government has discriminated against religious minorities and sought to silence its critics.” She asked, “What steps are you and your government willing to take to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities in your country and uphold free speech?”

Speaking through an interpreter, Modi responded, “In India’s democratic values, there is absolutely no discrimination, neither on basis of caste, creed or age or any kind of geographic location.

“Indeed, India is a democracy. And as President Biden also mentioned, India and America — both countries — democracy is in our DNA. The democracy is our spirit. Democracy runs in our veins. We live democracy.”

Before becoming prime minister, Modi had been denied a U.S. visa for several years over “severe violations of religious freedom.”

Since becoming prime minister in 2014, he has been criticized for his Hindu nationalist policies that are said to discriminate against Muslims, as well as for crackdowns on press freedom.

Poor ranking

India ranks poorly in terms of media freedom, with Reporters Without Borders putting the country at 161st out of 180 countries, where 1 has the best environment for journalists.

The media watchdog has said journalists there are exposed to violence and that members of the Hindu far right “wage all-out online attacks” on anyone with opposing views.

The attacks often are directed at women, with personal details shared online that put the reporters’ safety at greater risk, the watchdog says.

The White House Correspondents’ Association also expressed support for Siddiqui.

“The WHCA stands by Sabrina and the questions she chose to ask. In a democracy, journalists shouldn’t be targeted simply for doing their jobs and asking questions that need to be asked,” WCHA President Tamara Keith said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Wall Street Journal also condemned the harassment as “unacceptable.”

The harassment facing Siddiqui underscores global press freedom trends.

Reports show that female journalists face disproportionate harassment online as a result of their coverage. In one survey, 73% of journalists identifying as women said they experienced online violence in the course of their work.

The South Asian Journalists Association also backed Siddiqui.

“We want to express our continued support of our colleague @SabrinaSiddiqui who, like many South Asian and female journalists, is experiencing harassment for simply doing her job. Press freedom is the hallmark of any democracy and PM Modi leads the world's largest democracy,” the group said in a tweet.