- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Moscow — After booting the public from its meetings on Monday, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) tobacco control convention ramped up its assault on transparency on Tuesday when the press was also banned from the Moscow conference.

Shortly after the media was removed from the convention, the U.N.’s health agency secretly passed the world’s first ever global tax — an outrageous scheme requiring nearly 180 countries to apply a minimum tax on tobacco products.

All indications were that the global tobacco tax would not pass until Thursday or Friday, if at all. Without the public and the media there to watch, delegates ratified the tax almost immediately.

When I and a handful of other accredited journalists, showed up for a Tuesday morning press briefing, we were told that the briefing was canceled and the press was no longer allowed to attend any convention events at all.

The rest of the convention, which cost world taxpayers nearly $20 million, will now take place in secret, behind closed doors. It’s a chilling and disturbing attack on the freedom of the press — especially given the impact decisions made at the convention will have on people throughout the world.

Besides the global tobacco tax, delegates from the 179 countries that are members of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the United Nations‘ global anti-tobacco treaty, are also considering onerous regulations on e-cigarettes.

The decisions made at the convention apply to almost every major U.N. member nation in the world except for the United States, Indonesia and Switzerland.

When the public was kicked out of the convention on Monday, delegates — led by representatives from Brazil — went through the formal process of voting to close the spectator gallery and ban the public from the proceeding.

On Tuesday, when the journalists were banned, there was no meeting and no vote. Protocol was not followed — not that “properly” banning the media would be appropriate — it would just be a touch less despicable. The secretive nature of the press ban comes across as particularly sleazy and shocking.

A security thug representing the convention secretariat said the decision to prohibit the press was made overnight by the delegates and the secretariat. That same secretariat pockets $403,000 a year courtesy of world taxpayers for the task of overseeing a convention that meets every two years.

As I was escorted away from the convention area by two guards, I passed a German reporter being physically restrained from entering the room while being yelled at by WHO officials.

The zeal with which the delegates to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control oppose operating in the open, in front of media and the public, is a troubling indication that they have something to hide.

But what?

It’s likely the delegates don’t want citizens of their home countries to know what outrageous, ill-conceived and downright dopey policies they are discussing — and passing.

The global tobacco tax will cause the price of a pack of cigarettes in Norway to skyrocket from $16.30 to $51.61. In Germany, a pack of smokes will now jump from $7.50 to $14.48. Smokers in poorer countries will be impacted even more dramatically.

Worse, revenue generated from the taxes must be spent to fund particular government services that the WHO dictates. Countries have lost their ability to budget as they see fit.

The global tax scheme on tobacco opens up the possibility that the WHO will expand its reach into other products it deems harmful. Worldwide taxes on soft drinks, fast food, alcohol and snacks are already dancing in the thoughts of some of the battier convention attendees.

Delegates must have felt that kicking out the public and the press was the only way they could get away with passing a policy as foolish and appalling as a global tobacco tax without being pelted with rotten eggs when they stepped foot off the plane back home.

The United Nations seems unconcerned with the decision to bar the press from what were supposed to be open meetings. That is particularly troubling since the U.N. has publicly declared its commitment to a “free, independent and pluralistic media.” The U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva is tasked with fighting to protect and encourage press freedom in countries around the world.

The U.N. even hosts the annual World Press Freedom Day, which the organization began in 1993.

However, the U.N. is guilty of stunning hypocrisy when it comes to freedom of the press. By kicking the media out of its tobacco control convention, the WHO — the U.N.’s own health organization — has committed an egregious violation against press freedoms. The U.N. would likely admonish the media ban if it weren’t the one doing it.

When it comes to protecting the freedom of the press, the U.N. has proven that it will talk the talk but is unwilling to walk the walk.

Every country that cherishes and protects the rights of freedom of the press should stop paying dues to the U.N. until the organization has proven that, it too, values a free press.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently said, “Only when journalists are at liberty to monitor, investigate and criticize policies and actions can good governance exist.” Clearly, there is no hope that good governance can ever exist at the U.N. until the organization stops its shameful attacks on the press.

Drew Johnson is a columnist and editorial writer at The Washington Times.

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