WASHINGTON – The White House defended its decision Friday to bar reporters and photojournalists from a meeting between President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, while acknowledging the news media’s legitimate interest in covering the two leaders’ encounter.
Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama drew harsh criticism from China even before the meeting took place, and the White House appeared to be taking steps to keep it low-key to avoid further aggravating Beijing. Obama hosted the Dalai Lama in the White House’s Map Room, rather than the Oval Office, where the president traditionally brings a visiting leader for a photo.
At the same time, after declining media requests to photograph the meeting, the White House released its own photograph of the meeting produced by an official government photographer.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said he understood the media’s interest in covering the meeting with the Dalai Lama, a prominent world figure. But he said the decision not to allow access was consistent with past meetings Obama has held with the Buddhist monk.
“We have been working, as you know, to provide more access to photographers as well as to all of you,” Carney told reporters. “In this case, we weren’t able to do that, but we have been working on that effort.”
He added that it was the Dalai Lama’s choice to depart the White House without speaking to reporters who had gathered in anticipation that he might make some remarks.
Wary of aggravating tensions with China, previous administrations from both parties have restricted or prohibited news coverage of presidential meetings with the Dalai Lama. In the George W. Bush administration, journalists complained when the White House neither permitted photojournalists to cover the meeting nor released an official photo.
Still, the Obama administration’s decision comes amid growing media protests about limited access to Obama’s events. A coalition of major news organizations, including The Associated Press, has protested restrictions that sometimes keep journalists from taking pictures and video of Obama performing official duties.
In a joint statement, the presidents of two organizations leading that coalition said the White House has agreed previously that in principle, there should be independent press coverage whenever the president meets with a major world leader. They said the White House violated that principle Friday by denying access and then releasing its own pictures as a “visual press release.”
“Once again, this amounts to propaganda and is not open access by the people’s press to the people’s business. We are hopeful this will be the last such instance of such unprecedented restriction,” said David Boardman of the American Society of News Editors and Debra Adams Simmons of the Associated Press Managing Editors.
In recent weeks, the White House has taken some steps intended to address those concerns, including allowing journalists travelling with Obama aboard Air Force One to photograph the president while he signed an executive order.