Freedom of the press is under attack by the very organization that is supposed to be its greatest advocate: the United Nations.
The U.N. does host World Press Freedom Day, an annual celebration described by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as aimed at “nurturing and protecting an independent, free media.” But it’s hard to take the event seriously when the World Health Organization – the U.N.’s global public health arm – bans journalists from meetings, blacklists reporters who are critical of the agency, and awards high-profile events to countries that don’t allow a free press.
When I attempted to do my job of reporting on the meeting, a half dozen guards pulled me out of my chair and dragged me out of the meeting hall. I was left with bruises on my arms and shoulders from to the violent force used to expel me from the ostensibly public meeting.
When asked why journalists were banned and physically removed from the meeting, known formally as the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Conference of the Parties, a delegate admitted, “We don’t want people to know what we’re doing.”
Such secrecy is particularly troubling since decisions made at the gathering, including bans on e-cigarettes, tobacco tax increases, cigarette packaging requirements, and trade regulations, influence the global economy and directly impact more than 6 billion people.
Sadly, attempts to silence to media and leave the public in the dark are nothing new for the WHO.
The WHO blacklisted a reporter who criticized the organization’s fumbled response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. She was blocked from receiving email updates about the WHO’s Ebola efforts and agency officials refused to respond to her questions and interview requests.
In recent months, the WHO has also awarded two meetings to Turkmenistan, a country with no free press and where journalists who are critical of government actions are known to go missing, never to be heard from again. The country was ranked as the third worst in the world for respecting press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, which noted that journalism in Turkmenistan “can only be practiced clandestinely and when independent journalists are identified, they are liable to be jailed and tortured.”
The WHO’s attacks on the values of press freedom underscores the reality that the organization is bad at its job and doesn’t want people to know it.
An independent panel of health experts determined that the 2014 Ebola outbreak could have been controlled if the WHO had addressed the outbreak when it first learned about it, rather than waiting more than three months to respond. The WHO’s slow response, combined with its poor use of resources and inadequate emergency response systems contributed to countless deaths and immeasurable suffering.
The agency has also been criticized for failing to take proper steps to stop the spread of the Zika virus, issuing exaggerated and incorrect information about the 2009 swine flu outbreak, and advancing bogus information about cancer-risks related to consuming certain meats and using smartphones.
An internal WHO audit released in May revealed the organization is rife with incidents of fraud, corruption and sexual harassment. The audit included examples of sexual harassment by supervisors, physical assaults on women by high-ranking WHO officials, and the misuse of millions of dollars.
Most recently, as the tobacco control meeting was taking place in a conference center near Delhi, WHO officials ignored the fact that Delhi residents were smothering in the worst smog crisis in a generation. Citizens protested the WHO’s inaction, while top agency officials enjoyed lavish accommodations, took in cultural shows featuring regional dance and music, and devoured multi-course catered meals, all on the taxpayers’ dime.
Clearly, the WHO has plenty to hide. But trying to keep its shortcomings secret by launching an assault against press freedom is not the solution. Rather than spending time and energy silencing journalists, the U.N. should focus its efforts on getting its house in order and doing a better job of protecting public health.
Drew Johnson is a journalist and public policy analyst based in Las Vegas.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.