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Simon Ateba, the founder and chief White House correspondent for Today News Africa, has filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Biden White House, alleging that administration officials are “leaving biased journalists in charge of who gets to ask the tough questions” during daily press briefings.
The suit was filed by the Center for American Liberty, a nonprofit organization that defends free speech, on his behalf after Ateba was barred from attending the daily White House press briefings, where he regularly scuffled verbally with press secretary Karine Jean Pierre, NTD News reported.
“A free and robust press is vital to a healthy democracy,” the lawsuit says. “The Framers understood this to be an unassailable truth, enshrining protection of the free press in the First Amendment as an essential check on government power. This constitutional safeguard is at its zenith when the government itself is the subject of scrutiny. “
The suit further details how, in 2021, the White House Press Office relaxed the criteria for journalists to acquire “hard passes,” granting them entry to daily press briefings and unrestricted access to White House press facilities. The move aimed to enhance accessibility for smaller media outlets and uphold the principles of a free press.
Ateba applied for and received the hard pass in February 2021.
Ateba’s legal representatives explained that he consistently participated in White House briefings and posed inquiries. However, his questions were consistently disregarded or left unanswered by White House officials, even when he submitted them in written form directly to the White House Press Office.
“Regardless of what the questions are, the White House generally ignores them,” the lawsuit states. “This refusal to provide information to Mr. Ateba makes it increasingly difficult for Mr. Ateba to obtain the necessary information needed for the quality of coverage he seeks to provide his readers.”
According to the lawsuit, Mr. Ateba was granted the opportunity to attend President Joe Biden’s press conferences only once in nearly three years. However, on that occasion, he was denied entry. Even for the press conferences where he was permitted to be present, he was “not allowed to ask a question.”
He also requested to interview Biden ahead of the African Leaders Summit at the White House in December 2022, but it was also denied the suit states.
“After months of not receiving responses to written questions from the White House and not receiving an opportunity to ask questions in the briefing room, Mr. Ateba resorted to one of the only options available to him: speaking up during press briefings,” his lawyers wrote.
“Just like his colleagues, Mr. Ateba would engage in the scrum, shouting his questions to the White House Press Secretary questions during briefings. And on a few occasions, when the Press Secretary would not acknowledge him, Mr. Ateba would speak over his fellow journalists,” they wrote, noting that ultimately, the White House “did not appreciate this breach of decorum.”
NTD News adds:
The lawsuit references a number of incidents, including on March 20, 2023, when Mr. Ateba began shouting before White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre introduced the cast of the Apple TV show “Ted Lasso,” during a press conference to discuss the president’s mental health initiatives.
Before the press secretary could finish introducing the cast members, Mr. Ateba began questioning why he had not received any responses to his written inquiries or been given the opportunity to ask a question during the press briefing, prompting a tense exchange to occur between himself and Ms. Jean-Pierre.
During a different intense interaction in June, Ateba interjected while another correspondent was speaking in a daily press briefing. He reiterated his inquiry about the White House’s lack of response to his questions. Despite his colleagues advising him to stop questioning the press secretary, Ateba persisted, leading to another heated exchange in which Jean-Pierre characterized his behavior as “incredibly rude.
“Since December 2021, Mr. Ateba has asserted himself during the press briefings on a number of occasions. The mainstream media coverage of these incidents has largely painted Mr. Ateba as disruptive, disrespectful, and even seeking attention for himself,” Mr. Ateba’s lawyers wrote.
“But Mr. Ateba is simply seeking answers to his questions, which the White House refuses to give,” the suit adds.