On Monday, the world’s most important meeting aimed at reducing the harm related to tobacco use convenes in Noida. The conference serves as a legislative body of the United Nations that makes public policy decisions that are then adopted by countries throughout the world.
But while the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, known as Conference of the Parties, should be garnering attention for attempting to save lives, it has drawn the focus of the journalism community for something far less praiseworthy.
The biennial meeting has become known for its hostile treatment of the press.
I know firsthand. I was physically removed from the meeting for the “crime” of attempting to report on a public meeting, attended by governmental representatives from 180 countries, funded by world taxpayers, which sets policies that impact more than 6 billion people.
Four years ago, in Seoul, the Conference delegates decided to conduct business, debate issues, and vote on legislation in secret. Even though it was troubling and totally unreasonable, the delegates decided to ban the media, and the rest of the meeting took place behind closed doors.
In Moscow two years ago, press freedom deteriorated further still.
Rather than taking a vote to prohibit journalists, WHO officials simply decided the press was no longer welcome. When I attempted to attend a session before the decision to ban the press was announced, I was told I would be arrested if I stayed – even thought I had press credentials and every reason to be there. A large security guard then grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out of the meeting hall.
As I was being yanked out the door, another reporter was tackled so he would not enter the room.
WHO officials cancelled press briefings, prevented interviews, and told journalists not to come back to the meeting.
The policies discussed by the Conference delegates are well-intentioned efforts to reduce death and disease related to tobacco consumption. But they are also controversial.
Discussions and votes about tax increases, regulations on e-cigarettes and other innovative nicotine delivery devices, effective ways to combat black market cigarettes, and international trade issues deserve transparency and scrutiny.
Instead, they occur in secret. And that’s exactly how WHO officials and many of the delegates want it.
For further proof, consider that this year’s meeting is being held at the same time as the US presidential election. This severely limits the number of international reporters available to cover the Conference. It also guarantees that news reports about the meeting will be buried by wall-to-wall news coverage about America’s next president.
To make matters worse, journalists planning to travel to Noida to attend the meeting have already been warned that they will likely be expelled from the proceedings. As a result, fewer than 50 journalists are expected to attend next week’s tobacco control Conference of the Parties.
Have to be accountable
In comparison, a UN-hosted Conference of the Parties in Morocco about climate change expects to host more than 2,000 international journalists later this month. The climate change meeting even takes the impressive step of streaming many of the sessions online for the world to see.
Rather than spending the week scheming up ways to keep the public from learning about the decisions being made at the tobacco control convention, WHO officials and Conference delegates should allow journalist to report on the event freely and honestly. They should also take a page out of the climate change meeting’s playbook and stream the event on the internet so people across the globe can see which issues are discussed, how their tax money is spent, and how their delegates vote.
In order to effectively encouraging countries to reduce tobacco consumption, the WHO and the COP must first prove they are trustworthy partners concerned about public health and acting in the best interest of the public. That will never be possible until the COP respects press freedom and operates in a transparent and accountable manner.
Drew Johnson is a journalist who writes for The Daily Caller and several other Washington, D.C.-based publications.