Posted : 2012-11-15 20:54
Updated : 2012-11-15 20:54

What's cooking in WHO powwow?

Drew Johnson

The World Health Organization (WHO) is holding a convention in strict secrecy. Our reporter tried in vain to cover the meeting at the COEX in southern Seoul for two days. Drew Johnson, editorial page editor at the Chattanooga Times FreePress in Chattanooga, Tenn., faced the same difficulties and this is his account. — ED.

By Drew Johnson

A monumental session during the World Health Organization's (WHO) convention on tobacco control turned into an alarming attack on transparency, accountability and press freedom.

The WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which is meeting this week in Seoul, began on a high note. The convention's member countries on Monday ratified an agreement to fight smuggled and pirated tobacco products.

That goodwill was quickly destroyed when delegates of the member countries of the conference stripped the media of the ability to cover the meeting and escorted public onlookers from the premises.

The decision to meet behind closed doors occurred when a discussion began about efforts to decrease tobacco use by increasing the price of tobacco products.

Specifically, the convention attendees were discussing the framework for an international tobacco tax. This is one of the most controversial topics for debate in Seoul this week.

As the session began, the session's chairwoman expressed concern that there was a "large presence" of tobacco growers and industry representatives in the public gallery. That would be unsurprising since the discussion has a significant impact on the livelihood of the tens of millions of people employed by tobacco farming and production. The countries then agreed to make the rest of the meeting private.

Not content with simply outlawing the public from sitting in on the discussion, the convention leaders went on to bar journalists and, by proxy, the broader public from the session as well.

As a reporter covering this meeting, this was not only a frustrating stance, but it raises some serious questions about an organization that for years has operated largely behind the scenes and without the benefit of much public scrutiny.

When is the media more necessary than when an unaccountable, shadowy organization that devours millions of tax dollars each year from people across the world debates getting in the business of issuing global taxes?

This effort to silence the press is particularly chilling since it is in direct conflict with the U.N. — the WHO's parent organization—claims to fight to advance "free, independent and pluralistic media" across the world. Apparently, U.N. and WHO leaders believe in media rights in all cases except when the media covers them.

Of course, judging by the topics discussed so far during the WHO's tobacco control convention, there is little wonder why the international bureaucrats wanted to prevent the media from hearing more.

No matter what you think of tobacco, there should be room for an open and public dialogue about these issues and allowing the press to cover these debates is an integral part of that.

Without the freedom of the press, the public has no window into decisions which could very well impact them — and, judging by their atrocious decision to silence the media, the WHO seems fine with that.

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