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Wednesday April 17, 2024

Modi and the press

By S Qaisar Shareef
July 06, 2023

Towards the end of his recent visit to the US, Indian Prime Minister Modi and President Joe Biden held a joint press conference. Two reporters were invited to ask questions, among them Sabrina Siddiqui, who covers the Biden presidency for the Wall Street Journal.

A few months ago, Ms Siddiqui was in the limelight as one of two reporters invited to accompany the president’s entourage on his visit to Kyiv. Prior to joining the Wall Street Journal, Ms Siddiqui reported for prominent British newspaper The Guardian. She has also been a commentator on major news channels such as CNN, MSNBC, and Sky News.

Mr Modi was received in Washington with much fanfare as the US tries to build close ties with India. In addition to its growing economic heft, India is seen by Washington as a counterweight in Asia against the growing power of China.

At the same time prominent human rights organizations have raised alarms about increasing discrimination and ill treatment of religious minorities in India. Not only have members of the 200 million strong Indian Muslim community been routinely targeted but the 30-million strong Christian minority has also come under attack.

In a large diverse country such as India, some religious and ethnic tensions can happen. But it is the role of PM Modi’s BJP in targeting minorities as well the Indian press that has raised concerns among human rights organizations. A report by Human Rights Watch states that “Indian government led by the nationalist BJP escalated its crackdown on civil society and the media. Authorities prosecute activists, journalists, peaceful protesters...under fabricated counterterrorism and hate speech laws”. The statement goes on to say, “the government has adopted laws that discriminate specially against Muslims — police failure to act against supporters who commit violence has emboldened Hindu nationalist groups to target members of minority communities with impunity”.

With this backdrop, it was expected that human rights and the crackdown on the media would be topics of discussion between President Biden and Prime Minister Modi. Perhaps they were in private. But the exuberant welcome PM Modi received in Washington probably made him feel he would not face any critical questioning, until journalist Sabrina Siddiqui was invited by President Biden to ask questions. After asking President Biden about US-China relations, she asked Prime Minister Modi about the treatment of minorities in India: “what steps are you and your government willing to take to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities and to uphold free speech?”

Mr Modi responded with a long answer about how democracy is in India’s DNA, and that there is no discrimination against anyone in India based on caste, creed, or religion. Several prominent human rights organizations may beg to differ.

As the video of the press conference went online, Ms Siddiqi became a target of a massive online harassment campaign. Being a Muslim American, all kinds of motives were ascribed to her questioning. According to the Washington Post “the harassment has included threats, slurs and baseless accusations that Siddiqui asked the question out of political bias”.

Ms Siddiqui has been forced to change her Twitter account settings to avoid online harassment, much of it reportedly originating from India. The level of harassment reached a level that the White House press office was forced to speak up. White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said such attacks on a journalist are “antithetical to the very principles of democracy”. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “we certainly condemn any efforts of intimidation or harassment of a journalist who’s just trying to do their job”.

The Wall Street Journal as well as several major media organizations have also condemned the harassment of Siddiqui — among them the White House Correspondents Association, Dow Jones News Guild, Committee for Protection of Journalists.

PM Modi may not be used to such critical questioning from the Indian press, having silenced most critics. But as India develops a higher profile as a global player, members of the international press may not be so pliant.

President Biden has been forceful in condemning the treatment of Uighur Muslims who number about 10 million. One hopes the treatment of 200 million Muslims in the world’s largest democracy is also on his radar.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC. Website: www.sqshareef.com/blogs