President Joseph R.Biden Jr. would be holding his first solo press conference of 2022 at 4 p.m. ET today, January 19, 2022, but African reporters were not credentialed to attend.
There would be reporters from virtually all continents when Mr. Biden, 79, reflects on his first one-year in office and the challenges ahead, including in Ethiopia where the administration dedicated most of its foreign policy resources on the continent last year.
Biden faces historically low approval ratings for his first year in office and administration officials hope that today’s formal press conference would offer him a platform to talk directly to the American people and the world.
It is his tenth press conference since he took office in January 2021, following six solo and three joint ones held with world leaders, according to the University of California Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project.
Former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump had held a total of 27 and 21 formal press conferences at this point in their tenure, respectively.
In his first year in office, Mr. Biden’s relationship with Africa has been a bit complicated. He has shipped millions of vaccine doses to the continent to beat COVID-19, sent envoys to Ethiopia, Sudan and elsewhere to seek peace and strengthen ties with the continent, and personally hosted one African head of state at the White House.
But Mr. Biden also imposed a travel ban on eight African nations over the Omicron variant of COVID-19 which was first detected in South Africa, Botswana and Hong-Kong and was already present in virtually all other countries, including here in the United States. That ban has been lifted but remained in place for several weeks even though the virus was all over the world and evidence suggested that it had long been spreading undetected in the United States.
That ban led to contentious exchanges between White House Press Secretary Jennifer Psaki and Today News Africa White House Correspondent Simon Ateba.
The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) then decided to limit access to the White House briefing room to only 14 reporters until January 21, even though virtually all White House reporters had been fully vaccinated and boosted, always wear face masks and regularly undergo testing.
WHCA claimed that it was basing its decision on recommendations from health and medical experts. However, medical experts have repeatedly touted vaccination, wearing of face masks and regular testing as the safest way to beat the virus and return to life as it was before the year 2020.
Neither Today News Africa nor any other African media house were included in the rotation cycle, meaning that no African reporter has attended a White House press briefing this year, or any other event, even as President Biden escalated engagement with the continent, including having a phone call with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali on January 10 over the devastating humanitarian tragedy in Tigray, northern Ethiopia.
President Biden has promised to strengthen ties with the African continent and vowed to be more involved in conflict resolutions in Africa. This week, for instance, two senior American officials are traveling to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to urge Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali to end air strikes on Tigray, restore humanitarian access to the region and release political prisoners. They would also make stops in Saudi Arabia and Sudan to talk peace and reconciliation in Sudan.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Mary Catherine Phee and newly appointed Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa David Satterfield are traveling to Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Ethiopia from January 17 to 20, 2022.
However, even as Mr. Biden seeks to project collaboration abroad, right inside the White House, African reporters have repeatedly been iced out of key events, including when African heads of State visit the White House.
The decision to leave out African reporters from main events has left African reporters wondering whether Mr. Biden who was a champion of the fight against apartheid in South Africa has changed.
In his first year in office, Mr. Biden’s foreign policy agenda was dominated by Afghanistan and Africa, especially the Horn of Africa. As he reflects on his one year in office today, sadly, there would be no African reporter in the room to represent a continent with a population of 1.2 billion people, the second most populous continent after Asia and a staunch ally of the United States. And that is our take today.
Simon Ateba, Publisher and White House Correspondent for Today News Africa in Washington DC
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