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Journalists take White House to task over photo access

By Mark Felsenthal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Simmering tensions between the Obama administration and the White House press corps spilled into the open on Thursday when news organizations formally protested decisions to bar photojournalists from many presidential events.

The White House Correspondents Association and major news organizations, including Reuters, wrote to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney to complain about being shut out of events that the White House documented with its own photographer.

They urged the White House to provide access for independent photojournalists to all public governmental events in which the president participates.

"The apparent reason for closing certain events to photographers is that these events have been deemed 'private,'" the journalists wrote. "That rationale, however, is undermined when the White House contemporaneously releases its own photograph of a so-called private event through social media."

The evolution of information technology has expanded the ability of the White House to publish photos and video on its website, WhiteHouse.gov, or through widely viewed social media.

Journalists said they had routinely been denied the right to photograph or videotape the president when he is performing his official duties, citing six events that were reported to the public as "read-outs" with an "official" White House photo attached.

Numerous other published pictures of events closed to the press corps have raised hackles among reporters and photographers assigned to cover the president.

One prominent example was in 2012 when Obama was pictured by his official photographer sitting on the bus that civil rights activist Rosa Parks used to protest civil rights laws in 1955.

Another was this past summer when Obama visited the jail cell on Robben Island, South Africa, where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned.

The restrictions on access to such events interfere with legitimate newsgathering, raise constitutional freedom-of-the-press questions and set a dangerous precedent, the journalists said.

"You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases," the news groups wrote to the press secretary.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that space restrictions made access to some events difficult, and the administration viewed publication of photos of those events as an expansion of the public's access to the president's activities.

He acknowledged, however, that White House pictures were not a substitute for independent access.

"We remain very committed to making sure that independent journalists are documenting what the president is doing," he told reporters at a briefing. "It's in our interests to work closely with you to give you access so that the American public clearly understands what it is the president's doing."

The White House added to its schedule on Thursday a bill signing that was open to the photographers. Asked if that event had been added in response to journalists' concerns, Earnest said that access to bill signings "is something that we periodically add to the president's schedule."

(Reporting By Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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