When First Amendment principles go global

Monday, December 6, 1999

The First Amendment was on international display in Seattle last week during the World Trade Organization meeting. All in all, it lost something in the translation.

Thousands of advocates for human rights, labor, the environment and other causes gathered to voice their concerns about the pace and manner of the WTO’s efforts to globalize trade. Somewhere along the way, however, police confused the protesters with the gaggle of criminals who were there to break store windows, loot and vandalize.

Seattle officials declared a 46-block area a no-protest zone, imposed a limited curfew on a larger area and greeted the exercise of free speech with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and concussion grenades. Those undeterred by that arsenal were whacked with truncheons, kicked in the groin, pushed around, knocked down, locked up and generally encouraged to revise their interpretation of the First Amendment.

Suffering essentially the same treatment were members of the city and county councils trying to participate in the WTO events and journalists trying to cover both the meeting and the melee.

Suffering collateral damage were business owners forced to board up their buildings and close up shop, and Seattle residents who became persona non grata in their own downtown.

The demonstrations and disruptions seemed to have come as a large surprise to everyone. To Seattle officials who had no clue about the number of demonstrators descending on the city or the intensity of their feelings about the issues on the table. To WTO delegates who had to delay the opening ceremonies. And to most Americans whose first hint of something important happening in Seattle were the lurid scenes of clashes between police and protesters.

Why were so many caught unaware? Primarily, because major news media did an inadequate job of previewing the issues on the WTO’s agenda or discovering and exploring the grass-roots hostility to some of the organization’s decidedly undemocratic practices and policies.

Instead, during the run-up to the WTO’s third ministerial-level meeting, editors and news directors appeared to be lost in the GATT mode. GATT, or the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, was the predecessor to the World Trade Organization. The press dutifully covered GATT meetings for years, but they were low-key, arcane, uneventful and in the larger scheme of things didn’t seem to matter much to ordinary people.

When the WTO succeeded GATT four years ago, many media decision-makers apparently failed to grasp the sea change in significance and relevance. Where GATT was essentially toothless, with no enforcement powers, the WTO not only took up issues linked to the everyday lives of millions around the world, but it also had the power to arbitrate and enforce agreements among its members.

There are 134 nations who are members and 30 nations knocking on the door for entry. Despite its size, authority and importance, however, the WTO has chosen to operate in relative obscurity and secrecy. It shares little information and that only grudgingly and with much prompting.

It meets behind closed doors, delays for long periods the release of minutes and other material and rarely distributes such material broadly. Its decisions are by consensus rather than a vote, which masks any divisions there might be among the members. Its agenda generally is set by a group of 20 leading nations, known as the “Invisibles.”

The organization’s enforcement powers reside in the dispute-resolution panels, which sit in judgment of international trade disputes. These panels conduct business in complete secrecy, allow only government lawyers to participate, hear arguments from only the direct parties to the dispute, and are very stingy in publicizing the results of their deliberations.

The press has not done a great job of either covering or penetrating the WTO’s secrecy (this aversion to openness is known in international circles as lack of “transparency”). Neither has it picked up very well on the contradiction in the WTO’s insistence that its work affects only trade and the insistence of its critics that there are irrevocable links between its issues and the cultural, environmental, labor, health and other issues important to the daily lives of ordinary people.

Even if the press were still in GATT mode, one would have thought that someone in the nation’s newsrooms would have picked up on the concerns of WTO critics buzzing around the world on the Internet. Or have remembered similar violence and demonstrations at the WTO’s second ministerial-level meeting in Geneva last May.

So the press for the most part missed the significance of the WTO’s secrecy. It failed to fully explore the relationship between the issues on the WTO agenda and the agenda of those excluded from the process. It didn’t anticipate the disruptions. As a result, it was reduced largely to covering the demonstrations and police action more than the important issues on the table in Seattle.

As for the WTO officials, they left Seattle this weekend with little of their agenda accomplished, and they gave little evidence that they had learned anything from the protests against their policies of secrecy and exclusiveness.

At the next meeting, the ministers no doubt will be meeting behind closed doors, ignoring a truth that is not just global but universal: Nothing organizes and galvanizes ordinary people like attempts by the government or the elite to shut them up and shut them out.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.