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World press appeals to Putin on press freedom

The World Association of Newspapers (WAN) has appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to take measures to encourage press freedom in Russia and forgo control and influence over the media. WAN President Gavin O'Reilly opened the 59th World Newspaper Congress and 13th World Editors Forum in Moscow Monday by telling the president that his legacy would be judged "as much by the fate of the media – perhaps more – than by any other measure."

Addressing more than 1,700 senior newspaper executives from 110 countries, in the presence of Putin, other Russian leaders and foreign ambassadors, O'Reilly said control of the media by the state and its allies was hindering the ability of a free press to contribute to Russian development.

He pinpointed the absence of independent national television, which has been brought under direct or indirect government control, the purchase of many important newspaper titles by financial and industrial groups directly controlled by government or loyal to it, and the creation of an atmosphere of caution and self-censorship among journalists.

"All available evidence demonstrates that a strong, free and independent press is a fundamental precondition for truly sustainable economic, social and political prosperity," he said. O'Reilly said there was "widespread scepticism, both inside and outside your country, about whether there exists any real willingness to see the media become a financially-strong, influential and independent participant in Russian society today."

The WAN president noted that the levers used by the state to manipulate media in Russia were varied, highlighting, however, acquisition of important newspaper titles by financial and industrial groups either directly controlled by the government or loyal to it. "Mr President, if words and deeds have the same meaning, we would respectfully urge that now is the time to sever such ownership links, not to increase them," O'Reilly said.

He said that WAN "had been criticised by many for its decision to hold these events in Russia, precisely because of the concerns of our community about the press freedom situation here and the apparent lack of progress towards the establishment of strong, independent media that can fulfil their proper role in democratic debate.

"One of our several arguments to these opponents was that we might finally have an opportunity, in coming here to Moscow, to appeal to you personally to take vital new measures, to personally create the tone, if you like, to help your great and fine country develop the strong press that it merits and which can only add to the prestige and influence of Russia on the world stage."

Putin responded to O'Reilly's comments about the state's role in Russia media by saying, "the number of state assets in the Russian press market is steadily decreasing. Fifty-three thousand periodicals exist in Russia today. It would be absolutely impossible to control them even if the state had an interest in doing so."

"In 1991, the Russian people opted for democracy and therefore for a free and independent press ... The law on mass media, adopted in 1991, is recognised as one of the most liberal in the world," he said. Putin denied assertions that the state's influence in the media sector was still on the rise and he repeated vows heard before of commitment to the principles of democracy.

He said that the fact that he and O'Reilly were speaking on the issue inside the Kremlin reflected the vast changes that have occurred in Russia. "Today we are discussing the problems of the press in a critical way. You cannot imagine such a situation ten or 12 or 15 years ago," he said.

The annual half-year review of press freedom by WAN noted, "The ongoing legal harassment of the press and rigid controls on television continue to frustrate press freedom in Russia. The firing of television presenters for being too outspoken is not uncommon. In November 2005, Olga Romanova, a presenter for the Moscow television station Ren-TV was dismissed for publicly protesting internal censorship at the channel. She is not the first journalist for the network to meet this fate.

"Criminal defamation is also regularly employed as a tool to harass the media. In April, prosecutors in the western city of Kaliningrad filed criminal libel charges against Arseny Makhlov, publisher of the weekly Dvornik, in relation to three articles that appeared in the newspaper in 2004 and 2005, which reported on local official corruption. Also in April, Viktor Shmakov, editor-in-chief of Provintsialniye Vesti was placed under a two-month preventive detention on charges linked to his newspaper's critique of the president of the Russian republic of Bashkortostan."

According to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), WAN members are split over the association's decision to hold its annual congress in Russia. Some say the event will give the Russian government a seal of approval it does not deserve. Others such as Larry Kilman, WAN's director of communications, argue the congress could help improve Russia's media landscape by giving world media bosses the chance to take up press-freedom concerns directly with Putin.

"Some WAN members said that we shouldn't be going to a country that does not respect press freedom, and that is a legitimate debate. We have an association here that does support press freedom, the Russian Guild of Press Publishers, and they and their members felt that we could do benefit by being here," Kilman told RFE/RL. "I think we demonstrated that today by being able to talk directly to President Putin about the problems of the country. That was our goal."

However, Oleg Panfilov, the director of the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations, explained to RFE/RL why he chose to boycott the WAN congress. "The fact that I didn't go to this congress is a form of protest, because I consider that congresses devoted to the development of a free and independent press in the world should not be held in a country where there are very serious problems with freedom of expression," Panfilov said. "WAN could hold a congress on Russia's problems, for example, then this would be very important, then President Putin would not come and read his speech about how everything's fine in Russia."

Date posted: June 5, 2006 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 63