White House journalists press U.S. officials on lack of access during Modi-Biden bilateral and G-20 

The U.S. side was doing its best but had to ultimately work with the parameters and protocols of the meetings in coordination with the host, as per U.S. NSA Jake Sullivan

Updated - September 08, 2023 05:25 pm IST

Published - September 08, 2023 04:27 pm IST

File photo of U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

File photo of U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. | Photo Credit: AP

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre were grilled by the press traveling with U.S. President Joe Biden on the relative lack of access they would have to Mr Biden’s meetings in New Delhi, particularly Mr Biden’s bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The U.S. President is scheduled to land in New Delhi on Friday evening for the G-20 Summit and is expected to hold bilateral discussions with Mr Modi at the Prime Minister’s official residence.

Mr Sullivan said that the President has had private meetings with senior leaders without the press present and that the meeting was “not a typical bilateral visit to India”  with discussions being held in the Prime Minister’s Office but at his residence. 

“This is the host of the G-20 hosting a significant number of leaders, doing so in his home, and he has set out the protocols he’s set out,”  Mr Sullivan said aboard Air Force One en route to India via Germany, as per a transcript shared by the White House.  However, the issue of press access had been taken up by U.S. officials with their Indian counterparts, Mr Sullivan said. 

Several senior U.S. officials had worked on press access, Mr Sullivan said, and that in this instance the relative lack of access  was “a circumstance-based issue”  and nothing “ larger” . 

Mr Modi and Mr Biden had had press conferences before, including “ the unusual circumstance of a press conference in which Prime Minister Modi took questions” , Mr Sullivan said, referring to a rare event on June 22,  during Mr Modi’s state visit to Washington. An American reporter was heavily trolled on social media  for asking Mr Modi a question on democracy and human rights in India at the press event. 

Mr Sullivan said he took the issue of access “extremely seriously” and that the U.S. side was doing its best but at had to ultimately work with the parameters and protocols of the meetings in coordination with the host (the Government of India).

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean Pierre listed the officials, who , according to her had contacted their Indian counterparts on the issue of press access. Among the officials she named were Mr Sullivan, White House Communications Director Ben LaBolt, Kurt Campbell and John Finer from the U.S. National Security Council, and members of the U.S. sherpa ( i.e., negotiators) team. 

Asked if the Indian side was  not being responsive to access requests, despite a host of senior U.S. officials pressing for access with the Indian side, Ms Jean Pierre said the level of access at this G-20 was “not unusual” as far as summits go. 

“The free press is the pillar of our democracy,” Ms  Jean Pierre said, adding that for Mr Biden it was “incredibly important”  that the press be given access to him. She pointed to the June 22 Modi-Biden press conference as proof of the White House’s commitment to the issue. 

Asked what New Delhi’s explanation had been for the relatively restricted access for the press traveling with Mr Biden, Ms Jean Pierre said it was an issue for the Indian side to speak to. 

Asked if press freedoms in India and “rights of minorities”  will be raised during the meeting between Mr Biden and Mr Modi, Ms Jean Pierre said that that Mr Biden “ never, never fails to raise the importance of human rights” . 

“And it has come up with multiple leaders, including the Prime Minister,”  she added. 

“ …We have a significant number of issues that we need to deal with, with India, both issues that present opportunities for substantial cooperation and our mutual interest and issues where we need to work through differences in perspective,”  Mr Sullivan said. 

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