After being forcibly ejected from COP6, editorial writer Drew Johnson hopes this year’s gathering won’t be quite so physical.
By Timothy S. Donahue
When the media sign was taken down, Drew Johnson knew something was afoot. “The media is banned,” said a burly security guard as he confronted Johnson. There had been no formal vote during the plenary session at the sixth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP6) to the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) to ban the media, so Johnson felt the guard must have been mistaken. When he began to argue his position, the security guard grabbed him by the arm and swiftly lifted him out of his chair. Johnson quickly pulled away.
The guard told Johnson that he was going to get the police and have Johnson “carried out” and arrested for not leaving. “He walked off and came back with of few of his buddies. They grabbed me by my arms and forcibly removed me from the conference,” Johnson told Tobacco Reporter. During his involuntary exit, Johnson witnessed a German reporter being escorted out even more violently than he was. “The only time the media should be banned is if discussions will pertain to national security or, possibly, if a country is going to be reprimanded,” said Johnson. “A United Nations-funded organization isn’t supposed to be in the business of backroom deal-making. They definitely shouldn’t be manhandling journalists.”
WHO officials and delegates argued that banning the public was necessary because of fears that tobacco growers and cigarette company operatives had infiltrated the meeting. The objective of the WHO FCTC is to provide a framework for tobacco control measures to be implemented by the parties at national, regional and international levels. The Conference of the Parties is the convention’s governing body and comprises all FCTC signatory countries.
During COP6, which was held in Moscow, Oct. 13–18, 2014, the WHO banned the public on its first day and all media on the second day of the conference. The WHO formally voted to ban the public from the convention but never formally voted to ban the media, as the WHO did at its 2012 convention in Seoul, South Korea.
In anticipation of the seventh session of the Conference of the Parties (COP7), scheduled Nov. 7–12, 2016, in New Delhi, Tobacco Reporter caught up with Johnson to talk about his experience.
Tobacco Reporter: What happened after you were forcibly removed?
Drew Johnson: I went back to the media area and there were no WHO officials to be found. Eventually, someone came in and told all of us that we were all banned from the rest of the conference. They literally said, “You don’t even need to come back until the end.” They just wanted us to show up on the last day for a press conference where they would tell us what was accomplished.
Did you just wait until the last day?
No. Absolutely not. After the very next break I asked a delegate what they were voting on inside. I was told that they voted on the international tobacco tax. On the first day, we were told that item wouldn’t come up until Thursday or Friday. [It was] the most impactful thing the FCTC has ever done and literally the biggest tax increase in the history of the world, and they passed it in maybe an hour. I was told delegates tried to express concern, but anyone who had a differing opinion was essentially ignored and not given the opportunity to speak. I wasn’t there, but this information came from trustworthy delegate sources who were there. [One of the first decisions approved by the parties during COP6 was on its Article 6 guidelines, devoted to tax measures to reduce the demand for tobacco.]
Why do you attend the COP conferences? Do you have anything to do with tobacco?
I have no affiliation with tobacco companies or growers. I attended the COP5 in 2012 and COP6 in 2014 and plan on going to COP7 later this year because of the international tax policy implications. I do a lot of writing on taxation and regulatory policy. In 2014, I believe I was the only American journalist. This year, I plan to attend as a reporter for The Daily Caller. My main concern in 2014 was the global cigarette tax requirement that would slap a mandatory 70 percent excise tax on tobacco products in countries that ratified the United Nations anti-tobacco agreement. [The United States did not sign the agreement, but most other Western nations have.] After the doors were slammed shut and the meeting resumed, it became clear why the delegates chased the public away: They wanted to work on passing a global tax on tobacco in secret.
After the first day’s ban of the public during COP6, you wrote, “The tyrannical attack on the principles of transparency and accountability took place when delegates from more than 175 countries, who are part of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a UN global anti-tobacco treaty, agreed unanimously to boot spectators.” Some of those banned blamed you; was your article responsible for the media ban?
The first people from the media I saw that morning told me they felt that the media was kicked out because of the column I wrote the day before, disagreeing with the decision to ban the public from the conference. There was that feeling among some that the column was a part of it. It wasn’t unanimous by any means; there were journalists who agreed with my decision to tell the story of what was going on. I felt that when a UN organization, which has a responsibility to the public that it creates rules for, denies that very public access to it meetings, we are walking on very shaky ground. What precedent do they believe they are setting?
What are your expectations for COP7?
I have no doubt that the delegates will vote to ban the media and public. It will be even easier to ban everyone this year. The FCTC formally ratified policy to include the media as part of the public. The way they figure it, after they ban the public, the media, by extension, will be banned.
The hypocrisy of the kicking the media out of a UN event, an organization that sponsors the World Press Freedom Day [annually observed on May 3 by the UN General Assembly to inform the international community that freedom of the press and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights] is disturbing. It’s chilling. The FCTC now claims there is no difference between the public and the press. If that’s the case, why have I gone through an arduous process to get credentialed for the previous two COPs? It is totally absurd.
Don’t get me wrong. The public should have a right to go, too. It’s their money being used to put on these lavish meetings and tours and dinners. The policies they create impact nearly everyone in the world. To not give those taxpayers a voice is just disgusting. In order to be taken seriously when making regulations that affect more than 90 percent of the world’s population, the FCTC and the WHO need to be more transparent. There is nothing worse than the UN telling the world how to treat the media when it is busy treating the media unfairly.
You were let go from The Washington Times for confirming the National Enquirer story that former U.S. presidential hopeful Ted Cruz had multiple affairs. After that, you tweeted, “I now see the need for a platform to hold politicians/preachers/teachers/media & others w/power accountable. I promise to create such a site.” Is this website/app actually going to happen?
I am developing this. I can’t really discuss it in detail right now, but if an individual anywhere in the world witnesses abuse of power, we will give them a platform to tell their story, as well as benefit from providing that information. It’s something I really believe is needed. Governments need to be held accountable.
Any words for COP7 delegates?
I hope that I, along with some of the other journalists who were banned at COP6, have been able to explain just how troubling and creepy and wrong it is for delegates to ban journalists from a publicly funded meeting where policies that impact the lives of billions of people are made. I would encourage COP7 delegates to refrain from banning the media this year. They need to realize that banning the press and the public kills the FCTC’s credibility. It implies they have something to hide. COP delegates do some good things that they should be proud of, but by banning the media it casts a dark shadow over the process.