The United Nations is giving Uber a run for its money. At a tobacco control meeting hosted by the UN’s public health arm, the World Health Organization, I was given a free ride — straight out the door – courtesy of security guards.
I was jerked out of my chair by five men who then yanked me by the arms through a meeting hall filled with hundreds of government officials and finally pushed me out into a hallway.
My crime? Being at journalist at a taxpayer-funded meeting where government representatives from 180 countries make decisions that impact 90 percent of the world’s population.
A UN meeting should be the last place a journalist are banned, ridiculed or manhandled. After all, the UN hosts World Press Freedom Day and claims that promoting government transparency and freedom of the press are core functions.
But at the tobacco control meeting, known formally as the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Conference of the Parties, the UN does not practice what it preaches.
Every two years, delegates from around the world meet to debate and vote on tobacco control guidelines that nations then adopt. The FCTC Conference of the Parties is funded with millions of dollars from the pockets of global taxpayers and the decisions made at the event — including tobacco tax increases, advertising bans, regulations on new products such as e-cigarettes, and even guidelines for international trade — effect more than 6 billion people.
And every single decision is made in secret, behind closed doors. Even though the delegates – typically health ministers or finance secretaries – are acting on behalf of the citizens of their countries, there is no accountability whatsoever.
Using procedural sleight of hand and, occasionally, blatantly shady tactics, the meeting’s delegates manage to ban the media just before discussions begin on controversial topics. The debates are not recorded. Minutes from the meeting are not made public. Votes are not documented.
On Monday, it happened again. Moments before the day’s session ended, Thailand’s delegation made a motion to ban the media from the rest of the event. Not a single country opposed the motion – and the meeting hall was filled with people from countries, like Canada, Costa Rica, the UK, Australia and Norway, whose societies are built on a foundation of press freedom.
This is the third time I’ve covered this meeting as a member of the press. Delegates voted to ban the press each of the previous times as well, with little in the way of justification.
During the 2014 meeting in Moscow, I was told that it was important to hold the meeting in private because delegates representing authoritarian nations were not used to deliberating issues or casting votes in public.
And that’s exactly the reason the meeting should be public: to expose countries like Sudan, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Turkmenistan to the democratic process. It should not be the UN’s goal coddle dictators’ deputies and allow them to force the rest of the world to stoop to their dubious depths.
Another delegate at the Moscow conference confided that the media are banned because WHO officials like the appearance of unanimous votes and undivided support and they don’t want media to see when there are dissenting voices or opposing votes.
A third delegate from a former Soviet country said simply, “we don’t want people to know what we’re doing.”
Whatever the reason, I’d had enough. Media ban be damned, I made up my mind that I was going to sit in the empty press gallery, watch the deliberations and report on the proceedings.
I expected I would be asked to leave, which I was.
But I refused.
A few minutes later, a half-dozen men from the local security detail surrounded me and the person in charge of the credentials for the meeting jerked the press pass off my lanyard and told me that I’d never be allowed to come to another WHO event again. Then my feet lifted off the ground and my ride began.
On the way out, I managed to yell to the delegates that journalists had a right to be in the room and they needed to operate in an open transparent manner.
It’s hard to tell how seriously they took a guy shouting in a rural Appalachian-American accent while being involuntarily transported across a conference center ballroom. But I believe I got my point across before I was shoved out the door.
As I was delivered into the hallway, the guy in charge of credentials (the one wearing glasses and holding a piece of red paper in the video) called a reporter “a child.” That “child” is Faith Goldy, an adult who also happens to be a very accomplished, respected Canadian journalist.
He then twice slapped her arm away very forcefully, as if trying to knock the microphone from her hand.
If the UN and the WHO have any principles whatsoever, he should be looking for work today. It is totally unacceptable for a representative of the UN to behave that way towards another human being.
One thing that wasn’t recorded was the applause I received from several other journalists after the FCTC officials left the area. My stand may have been solitary in the moment, but I know my actions reflect thousands of journalists across the globe who feel the UN and its agencies have become unaccountable to the public and combative towards the press.
I hope my effort to defend press freedom sheds a spotlight of the WHO’s tobacco control meeting. Delegates should open the conference to the press and the public. They should also stream the meetings online and record votes. These common sense steps would go far in ensuring that delegates behave appropriately and citizens are well-represented.
Any legislative deliberation that impacts billions of people and takes place on the taxpayers’ dime should be open to the press. This one should be no different.