White House condemns online intimidation of WSJ journalist Sabrina Siddiqui

By Mayank Chhaya-

During a news conference on June 22 at the White House as part of the prime minister’s state visit, Siddiqui asked him, “There are many human rights groups who say your government has discriminated against religious minorities and sought to silence its critics. 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?”

Modi, who has eschewed any news conference in his more than nine years as prime minister, replied in Hindi which translated as, “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, (for) India and America, both countries, democracy is in our DNA. Democracy is our spirit. Democracy runs in our veins. We live democracy.”

In an ideal world that should have been that but not in the world as it is now. The very fact that Modi was asked a question like that and that too at the White House during his much crowed about state visit was seen as an affront by his legion of supporters. Add to that Siddiqui is a Muslim and whose father, although born in India, grew up in Pakistan, and whose mother is Pakistani, was perfect grist for the lunatic social media mill. She almost immediately exposed herself to vicious social media trolling, emanating mainly out of India and that too by the avowed supporters of the prime minister and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

It is a measure of how bad the intimidation became that a question was raised during a regular White House media briefing yesterday when John Kirby, National Security Council spokesman, was asked about it. His response was something New Delhi ought to have taken note of.

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

Whether Sabrina Siddiqui is a Muslim or a Pakistani or from Mars or for that matter what the color of her hair is or the brand of shoes she wears is utterly irrelevant to the substance of her question. The prime minister answered it the way he thought was appropriate. Whether his reply was supported by facts in the ground is a different debate, but the exchange should have ended there. It did not and prompted not one but two White House comments, the second one being by Karine Jean-Pierre, the press secretary, who said, “We’re committed to the freedom of the press” and “condemn any efforts of intimidation or harassment of a journalist.”

The Wall Street Journal, the newspaper for which Siddiqui works, responded to the attacks in a statement yesterday calling her “a respected journalist known for her integrity and unbiased reporting. This harassment of our reporter is unacceptable, and we strongly condemn it.”

The South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) also came to her defense saying, “We want to express our continued support of our colleague Sabrina Siddiqui who, like many South Asian and female journalists, is experiencing harassment for simply doing her job.”

It may seem futile to counsel sobriety to a group people who feel resurgent in their pride about all things Indian, including some obvious failings, but as India positions itself as the most consequential democracy in the world alongside America, its citizens and politicians may consider the option of not bristling at or flying off the handle at any perceived slight.

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