“Take your job plan and shove it, Mr President. Your policies have harmed Chattanooga enough.” That was the headline of an opinion article written by American journalist Drew Johnson criticizing US President Barack Obama’s jobs plan in 2012. The only problem is that President Obama happened to be in the city that day. Eventually, Chattanooga Times Free Press, the conservative newspaper Johnson worked for, fired him.
The newspaper claimed that he violated editing principles while putting out that headline. But Johnson claimed otherwise. He stated that he had followed the standard editing procedure and the policy on the basis of which he was fired did not exist at the time he wrote the article.
Johnson, who’s been a columnist for The Washington Times, wasn’t at the receiving end for the first time. In February 2007, Johnson exposed former US Vice President Al Gore’s electricity consumption records. The investigation revealed that he used more electricity in a month than an average American household did in one full year. Numerically speaking, Gore’s bills were twenty times higher.
Unfortunately, for Gore, the expose was in the aftermath of his much acclaimed documentary called Inconvenient Truth. Johnson’s findings made Gore appear like a hypocrite who wasn’t personally cutting down on his electricity consumption but sermonising the entire world on adapting to a sustainable way of life to compliment the environment. At that time too, Johnson was faced with criticism.
Nevertheless, Johnson carried on with his journalism that eventually led him into a standoff with the United Nations. After irking the sitting US President and former Vice President, Johnson’s reportage and questioning led to the World Health Organisation (WHO) throwing him out of Conferences of the Parties held in Moscow in 2014. He has observed the United Nations frequently censor the press and harass journalists through various means.
In November, India will play host to the seventh session of Conference of the Parties (COP7) as also the first session of the Meeting of the Parties (MOP1). It’s something that has Johnson worried. “Besides kicking journalists out of meetings that should be open to the press, there is an indirect kind of press exclusion that takes place at the COP meetings to ensure that only a very small number of reporters will even be able to attend,” he told exchange4media.
He further said, “The COP is being held at the exact same time as the U.S. presidential election in November, so most international political reporters will be too busy reporting on the most important election in the world than to cover a WHO tobacco control meeting.” However, he was hopeful that Indian journalists will work towards ensuring accountability at the WHO meet in Noida.
“The world will listen to Indian journalists if they report that WHO officials and government leaders from across the globe are treating the media in ways that would never be tolerated by Indian leaders,” he added.
During his trip to India earlier this month, Johnson spoke exclusively to exchange4media. Edited excerpts:
In an opinion piece for The Washington Times, you have termed the United Nations a “hypocrite” and a “fraud” when it comes to press freedom. What prompted you to level such serious allegations against the world body?
The United Nations host the annual World Press Freedom Day to promote freedom of the press among UN member countries and to encourage governments to operate in a transparent and accountable manner. At the same time, however, the UN and especially, its public health arm, the World Health Organization, are taking drastic steps to silence the press.
For example, the media has been banned from two separate WHO tobacco control Conferences of the Parties (COPs) that I attended as a journalist. During the most recent one, two years ago in Moscow, I and other journalists were physically removed from the COP event so we could not see how delegates voted on a proposed international tobacco tax and other issues.
These meetings are supposed to be open to the media, and they should’ve been. After all, these delegates are high-ranking government officials – health and finance ministers from 180 countries – who are using their citizens’ tax dollars to come together and discuss issues that impact the health and financial well-being of most of the people on Earth. The media should have had the opportunity to report their discussions, record their votes and allow the public to hold them accountable for their decisions.
Additionally, the WHO blacklisted a reporter who wrote critically about the organization’s response to the Ebola crisis. She was banned from press conferences and blocked from receiving email updates from the WHO.
The organization also frequently awards prominent meetings to countries that have almost no press freedom at all. Turkmenistan, for instance, hosted two WHO meetings in the past year, even though the country was ranked third-worst in the world for respecting press freedom by Reporters Without Borders. The nation is known for imprisoning and even murdering journalists who attempt to objectively report on the government.
Since the UN hosts World Press Freedom Day while behaving as a threat to press freedom, I felt very justified in using terms like “hypocrite” and “fraud.” In fact, I’m not sure those terms are strong enough. The UN is behaving in a truly despicable manner.
Isn’t it ironic that a global organisation like United Nations is being accused of subjugating the press? In an ideal scenario, the UN should be at the forefront of guarding press freedom.
It’s absolutely outrageous that the organization that is most responsible for protecting global press freedom has become an enemy to the very principles it should be defending.
As an American or an Indian, it’s easy to take a cavalier attitude about the UN’s horrible actions when it comes to press freedom. Fortunately, our countries have strong laws regarding freedom of the press, open meetings, open records and government transparency.
But for smaller, less-developed or more corruption-prone countries, the UN sets the standard for how journalists should be treated and recommends policies to enhance press freedom. But these countries may very well lose their interest in protecting freedom of the press once they realize that the UN, their guiding light regarding how to operate a free and objective media, is banning the press and preventing journalists from receiving information. The UN is setting a truly dangerous example that will harm journalists, and ultimately, citizens in countries throughout the world.
Why is the United Nations behaving in such a reckless manner?
In my experience, when a government goes to extreme lengths to prevent the media from attending meetings or accessing information that should be a matter of public record, it’s because someone has something to hide. It may very well be that the UN and the WHO have something to hide, as well.
Are any media organisations or journalists actively taking up this issue?
The Committee to Protect Journalists and UN Watch have both expressed concern about the WHO’s troubling treatment of the media. A few members of the international press who were present when the media was banned from the COP in Moscow intend to attend this year’s version of the meeting in Greater Noida this November to report on press exclusion issues.
Frankly, however, the number of international reporters who attend this meeting and who aren’t simply WHO cronies that intent on making the organization look good is very small.
As a result, journalists in the host country are the most influential voices when it comes to holding the WHO accountable for mistreating the media. The world will listen to Indian journalists if they report that WHO officials and government leaders from across the globe are treating the media in ways that would never be tolerated by Indian leaders.
A few journalists from Western Europe and North America can only do so much to hold the WHO accountable. Dozens of Indian reporters can force huge changes in how the UN and the WHO treats the media.
In November 2016, India will play host to the seventh session of Conference of the Parties (COP7) as also the first session of the Meeting of the Parties (MOP1). Do you expect the media to be subjected to similar restrictions that you have faced at UN events in the past?
Some insiders and delegates expect WHO officials to create opportunities for the media to interact with COP leaders that haven’t existed in the past. That may provide the appearance of more accountability and engagement with the media. But in reality, I expect the media will be kicked out of the COP proceedings and banned from covering discussion and votes. So the shameful media exclusion and the shocking assault on press freedom will almost certainly continue.
Besides kicking journalists out of meetings that should be open to the press, there is an indirect kind of press exclusion that takes place at the COP meetings to ensure that only a very small number of reporters will even be able to attend. The COP is being held at the exact same time as the U.S. presidential election in November, so most international political reporters will be too busy reporting on the most important election in the world than to cover a WHO tobacco control meeting. Additionally, the COPs are almost always held in locations that are extremely expensive and difficult for Western European and North American journalists to attend, meaning that many of the world’s most influential media outlets simply don’t report on the meetings.
While India is certainly easier to get to for most journalists than South Africa or Uruguay and simpler to get into than Moscow, it is still a place most media outlets won’t pay to send reporters. As a result, it is imperative that Indian journalists cover the meeting and report on the policy decisions that take place, as well as shine a light when press freedom is attacked.