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Putin Scolded for Curbing the Press

With President Vladimir Putin sitting just a few meters away, World Association of Newspapers president Gavin O'Reilly on Monday railed against Russia's resurgent authoritarianism while praising "this great and proud superpower."

O'Reilly's comments, in a speech delivered in the State Kremlin Palace, came on day two of an annual WAN conference that has drawn 1,500 editors and media executives from 111 countries.

Directing his comments at Putin, O'Reilly said: "I must tell you honestly that many of our members questioned the choice of Russia as the location for our 2006 world press summit and indeed have done so right up to the last minute. As I am sure you are aware, your country and your administration have been severely criticized internationally for an alleged unwillingness to forego control and influence of the media."

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov seemed to underscore WAN members' fears that hosting the conference in Moscow lent legitimacy to the Kremlin's claim that it supports a free press.

In a statement Monday, Gryzlov, who was not at the WAN conference, said the meeting reflected "recognition by the world's professional newspaper community of the democratic gains of recent decades in which the Russian press has played an active part."

O'Reilly, in his speech, added that "it should also be said that there is still very widespread skepticism, 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. And sadly, no one can pretend that this is the case today, certainly not for newspapers."

But O'Reilly skirted several sensitive issues, including ongoing Western debate about whether Russia should belong to the G8 and Moscow's support for Belarus' dictatorial President Alexander Lukashenko.

A video aired by O'Reilly during his remarks detailed numerous infringements of press freedoms across the globe, including the jailing last year of a New York Times reporter in the United States, but largely avoided mention of Russia.

As O'Reilly was about to speak, three National Bolsheviks staged a protest in the middle of the hall, chanting "Putin is the executioner of freedom" and "Russia without Putin."

The protesters' voices were muffled by security guards who quickly detained them. A party spokesman said police took the protesters to the Kitai-Gorod police station; he added that the protesters had obtained press credentials to get into the conference.

Putin, following O'Reilly, framed the state of Russian media -- and, more broadly, Russian politics -- in historical terms, noting that the hall they were in had been built by the Communists to host party congresses.

"True, Bolsheviks still come to this hall, but in a different capacity," Putin said, referring to the protesters.

Putin struck a conciliatory note, saying "the habit of reading a newspaper is a ritual you can't get over."

And he juxtaposed today's political climate with that of the 1990s, which was marked, he said, by a "dictatorship of oligarchic capital."

Putin also suggested that fears of a Soviet-style state clamping down on the press were overblown. Saying there were 53,000 periodicals in Russia, he continued: "It would be absolutely impossible to control all of them, even if the state wanted to." He added that the government's share of the media sector was actually shrinking, not growing.

Despite concerns about holding the conference in Moscow, Putin said, "the press didn't let itself be frightened. It did the responsible thing and came to Moscow."

O'Reilly appeared to try to soften his criticism of the Kremlin by framing his remarks as questions.

"Why is it that the state is still accused of promoting an atmosphere of caution and self-censorship among journalists, fearful for their livelihoods if they step very visibly out of line?" he asked.

"Or with the absence of independent national television, all of which is now under direct or indirect government control," he added, "how can it be argued that objective commentary and analysis are not sorely jeopardized?"

Buttressing O'Reilly's remarks Monday was Russian television's coverage of the event, which devoted considerable footage to Putin and little to the criticism aimed at him.

Rossia television said the WAN conference was "only held in countries with developed democracy and free media."

After each question, O'Reilly paused, as if to let the audience grasp the full weight of his comments. "I trust that you will take my candid remarks constructively. ... We are not here to lecture. We are here to engage," he said, addressing Putin.

Throughout O'Reilly's speech, Putin played with a pen and made notes in a draft of his speech.

O'Reilly may have tamped down some of his criticism to accommodate the Kremlin, Kommersant reported Monday. A source close to the Kremlin said O'Reilly had planned to accuse Putin of backsliding on democracy, the newspaper reported.

Kommersant is one of three major sponsors of the WAN conference.

The earlier draft of O'Reilly's speech, according to the newspaper, also argued that Russia should not be a member of the G8, let alone this year's president.

Kremlin officials were incensed after seeing this draft and threatened to cancel the conference or at least Putin's participation in it, Kommersant said.

On Monday, O'Reilly told The Moscow Times that the Kommersant article was "complete and utter fabrication." He added: "They never saw my speech because I didn't distribute my speech, but I think as you may have heard from my speech, I didn't hold back at all." O'Reilly said Putin had "wonderfully skillfully" avoided addressing his criticisms in his speech.

(The Moscow Times

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