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Sunday, May 4, 2008

A chance for Beijing to take a stand on health


LOS ANGELES — As matters now stand, accredited, professional journalists from Taiwan are once again being denied press passes by U.N. authorities to cover the annual World Health Assembly of the World Health Organization. This year's event takes place in Geneva on May 19. The topic is "A Safer Future: Global Public Health Security in the 21st Century."

A keystone to greater public-health security around the world is good and timely information. That is the news media's primary job, and there's no issue more needy of acute timeliness than health, especially with epidemics like SARS and the bird flu.

The reporters from Taiwan are not being denied accreditation because they are not competent journalists. They are being denied because they're from Taiwan, which is not a member of the United Nations because it is not recognized by the U.N. — or by most countries of the world, and for that matter the United States — as a separate, sovereign country.

In particular, China, with its U.N. Security Council veto, and growing clout on the world stage, takes umbrage at any official recognition of Taiwan, even of its journalists.

It views this Taiwan-journalist controversy as just another semi-clever wedge move by Taipei to nail down the island's image as a permanently political entity separate and distinct from the mainland. Its strong feelings on the subject are well known to the U.N.'s Department of Public Information, which has enough problems on its hands without trying to take on Beijing by accrediting the Taiwan journalists.

Even so, China and the U.N. are wrong on this issue, and the Taiwan journalists are right. Indeed, the latter is the strongly held view of almost every journalist I know, of the International Press Institute, of the prestigious and professional global network of editors, of the media executives and leading journalists in over 120 countries, and of the massive International Federation of Journalists.

I could bore you by running through the details in the various clauses of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (such as Article 19, or Article 2), which lean toward the journalists, but instead, let's appeal directly to Beijing, the U.N. and — most of all — to good old common sense.

Every additional journalist that covers this important world-health conference is a good thing for the world's public health. The more we know — about what to eat, how to care for others and ourselves, what symptoms to watch for and which to fear — the better will be the common health of mankind. If there's one thing the news media can do when it is doing its thing well, it is to spread the news — quickly and furiously. This is what news people do.

As for Beijing, first of all, its own public-information health record is less than exemplary. Beijing knows this, so let's not rehash the mainland's SARS and AIDS performance. China will not be receiving any public-health Nobel Prizes anytime soon.

Another thing, Beijing deserves credit for its recent cozy overtures to the newly elected government of Taiwan's Ma Ying Jeou. And, for his part, this dashing candidate of the Kuomintang Party, which favors non-antagonistic relations with the mainland, has made it clear that he favors much warmer and closer ties with the Beijing behemoth.

This is a golden opportunity for Beijing to make a grand and above-the-commonplace gesture, reverse its policy of opposing Taiwan journalists' accreditation in the interest of world public health, and look to the rest of the world like the reasonable government it can be when it actually wants to be reasonable.

Besides, give the new guy Ma the sense of a small victory, and his new government may surprise Beijing with what it gets in return. And even if the Ma government — just now getting its act together — does blow the opportunity, it will look even better in the eyes of world public opinion.

As for the U.N.'s embattled Department of Public Information: Look ladies and gentlemen, let us not kowtow to Beijing all the time. Let's pick a spot once in awhile and make some noise. So here's a good soapbox to stand on: Maximizing public information about world health and the workings of the World Health Assembly, the WHO's governing body. This means giving press credentials to just about anyone who wants one, even to producers of Web pages that hardly anyone has heard of — and maybe even to Taiwan journalists!

It's all for a good cause, the issue is anything but complicated, and best of all, it's actually very important. It would certainly be a healthy political development.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a veteran journalist and syndicated columnist, is the recent author of "Confessions of an American Media Man."


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