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Journalists Protest Restrictions On Photographing Obama, Compare White House To Soviet Union

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President Barack Obama speaks about his signature health care law, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. Bowing to pressure, President Barack Obama intends to permit continued sale of individual insurance plans that have been canceled because they failed to meet coverage standards under the health care law, officials said Thursday. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) | ASSOCIATED PRESS
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White House journalists and photographers from a wide variety of media organizations are protesting limits placed on them which often bar them from taking pictures of the President.

The Associated Press, ABC News, Fox News Channel, the New York Times Co. and 34 other news organizations have voiced their demands in a letter delivered to the White House on Thursday asking for more access to President Obama as he performs official duties and meets with staff members in and out of Oval Office.

In a meeting with White House secretary Jay Carney, New York Times photographer Doug Mills went as far as to compare the White House to the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS), otherwise known as the Russian news organization behind the propaganda of World War II. Mills and other photographers questioned why they are banned from covering presidential events while only pictures taken by the White House image team are readily released to the public.

"Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties. As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government," the authors of the letter wrote to White House secretary Jay Carney.

Read the full letter, which was obtained by HuffPost's Michael Calderone, below:

November 21, 2013

Jay Carney
Press Secretary
The White House

VIA HAND DELIVERY

Dear Mr. Carney: We write to protest the limits on access currently barring photographers who cover the White House. We hope this letter will serve as the first step in removing these restrictions and, therefore, we also request a meeting with you to discuss this critical issue further.

Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties. As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government.

To be clear, we are talking about Presidential activities of a fundamentally public nature. To be equally clear, we are not talking about open access to the residence or to areas restricted, for example, for national security purposes.

The apparent reason for closing certain events to photographers is that these events have been deemed “private.” That rationale, however, is undermined when the White House contemporaneously releases its own photograph of a so-called private event through social media. The restrictions imposed by the White House on photographers covering these events, followed by the routine release by the White House of photographs made by government employees of these same events, is an arbitrary restraint and unwarranted interference on legitimate newsgathering activities. You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases.

All of the following events, with the exception of the McCain-Graham meeting, were reported as “read-outs” by the White House with “official” White House photo(s) attached. They illustrate the troubling breadth of the restrictions placed upon newsgathering by the White House to record governmental activity of undisputed and wide public interest:

  • On July 10, 2013, the President met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
  • On July 11, 2013, the President met with the Co-Chairs of the U.S. - China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
  • On July 29, 2013, the President met with former Secretary of State Clinton (White House photo also distributed via Twitter)
  • On July 30, 2013, the President and Vice President met with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
  • On August 26, 2013, the President met with African-American Faith Leaders.
  • On September 2, 2013, the President met with Senators McCain and Graham.
  • On October. 11, 2013, the President and family members met with Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, a person of great public interest.

While certain of these events may appear “private” in nature, the decision of the White House to release its own contemporaneous photograph(s) suggests that the White House believes these events are, in fact, newsworthy and not private.

The right of journalists to gather the news is most critical when covering government officials acting in their official capacities. Previous administrations have recognized this, and have granted press access to visually cover precisely these types of events, thus creating government transparency. It is clear that the restrictions imposed by your office on photographers undercut the President’s stated desire to continue and broaden that tradition. To exclude the press from these functions is a major break from how previous administrations have worked with the press.

Moreover, these restrictions raise constitutional concerns. As the Supreme Court has stated, the First Amendment protects “the public and the press from abridgment of their rights of access to information about the operation of their government,” Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 584 (1980). The fact that there is no access whatsoever only heightens those concerns. As one court has noted in considering a similar restriction: “The total exclusion of television representatives from White House pool coverage denies the public and the press their limited right of access, guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States." Cable News Network, Inc. v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., et al.
518 F.Supp. 1238, 1245 (N.D. GA 1981).

The organizations and individuals signing this letter strongly believe that imposing limits on press access, as your office has done, represents a troubling precedent with a direct and adverse impact on the public’s ability to independently monitor and see what its government is doing. We consider this a most serious matter and urge you to provide appropriate access for independent photojournalists to all public governmental events in which the President participates.

Again, we see this letter as the first step toward restoring full press access to these events. Accordingly, we request an immediate meeting with you in order to resolve this very serious situation. We ask that you contact Steve Thomma, President of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and Sam Feist, current television pool chair, to set up the meeting.

Thank you.

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