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I Was Sniffed for Explosives by Guard Dogs at Prime Minister Harper's Maternal and Child Health Summit

Stephen Harper's UN-sanctioned summit on maternal and child health featured a lack of transparency and secrecy the likes of which some journalists say they've never witnessed before.
June 3, 2014, 2:55pm

Photo via the author.
I don’t think I’ve ever had my things sniffed for explosives by a dog and certainly not twice in one day. Nor have I been escorted to the bathroom since childhood, but that’s exactly what happened last week to me and other journalists covering Prime Minister Harper’s maternal and child health summit in Toronto.

During the closing session Friday morning, World Health Organization director-general Dr. Margaret Chan praised the Prime Minister for his efforts to promote accountability for development aid efforts to save the lives of the 289,000 women and 6.6 million children under five who die each year, mostly from preventable causes. But if the government’s treatment of journalists is anything to go by, it seems it isn’t so concerned about being transparent about its work on saving moms and their babies.

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The bulk of the conference, including sessions in which experts discussed pressing issues related to maternal and child health, were closed off to journalists. And we weren't told about the restrictions until we arrived.

Our belongings were sniffed by a ferocious-looking dog, and we were herded through and asked to wait in two rooms before government officials escorted us to the main event. Once there, we were seated at the back in a cordoned-off section from which we could barely see the stage.

And if we needed to leave briefly to make a phone call, go to the bathroom, whatever, we were chaperoned.

It was “doubly humiliating,” said National Post health reporter, Tom Blackwell, after he was escorted to the loo by a woman.

A government official stood by, listening à la 1984, when I had to step out of the room to chat on the phone about another VICE story with a colleague.

And, as soon as the off-limits sessions began—including an address by WHO’s Dr. Chan—we were promptly escorted out.

When coffee breaks rolled around, we weren’t allowed to wander out and speak to delegates. In fact, I almost got into trouble for interviewing a doctor in the off-limits coffee break area—about the good things that Canada is doing—before a PR person intervened and convinced the government official to leave me be.

“I have been a professional journalist since 1974. I have covered Quebec politics. I have covered national politics. And I have never experienced this kind of treatment of the media before ever,” said  Toronto Star reporter Antonia Zerbisias. “My stuff has been sniffed more often by dogs here than in a whole month by my own dog at home. It’s ridiculous!”

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The best explanation I got for the unusual media monitoring process was that it was a “high security” event with important leaders on the floor. Funny that none of the hundreds of delegates had to pass through a security screening or have their things sniffed at by dogs. And that, even after being cleared as explosive-free, we couldn’t wander around and chat with attendees.

“What the heck are they doing?” bemoaned one organization’s press person after they found out what was going on. The NGOs, caught off guard by the tight control, were confused. It certainly wasn’t part of their PR strategy.

It’s odd, as Maclean’s Kate Lunau blogged, that the Prime Minister’s Office would go to such lengths to block journalists from what is more or less a good news story. What's more, when I did find people for interviews, it sounded like we were at a conference filled with delegates who are generally happy about Canada’s efforts to lead the global push to improve maternal and child health.

The rationale for all the fuss, officials said, was that not having journalists around created space for frank and open discussion.

A frank and open discussion with the Canadian public, however, doesn’t seem to be a priority.

Well-known critiques of the government’s policy—including its lack of support for family planning, its position against abortion and the lack of transparency—were in the news coverage anyways, so what was it trying to hide?

Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it was just desperate to control the message. Whatever the case, I’d say it was a public relations fail. Twitter was abuzz with disgruntled journalists. Instead of mingling with leading global experts during their coffee breaks, we got material to write stories about what we couldn’t do.

And, at the end of the day, it was pretty disappointing to see the government go to such lengths to make it difficult for journalists to take advantage of a kickass opportunity to write about how and why mothers and their children are dying by the thousands, and what is being done about it.  @alia_d