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Russia: Putin Comes Under Fire At Global Media Congress

  • Claire Bigg

http://gdb.rferl.org/B7C3B892-CD35-4AF1-9A30-0CF3F6A8AF2C_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/B7C3B892-CD35-4AF1-9A30-0CF3F6A8AF2C_mw800_mh600.jpg Members of the National Bolshevik Party shout slogans during President Putin's speech at the congress (epa) MOSCOW, June 5, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Some 1,700 editors, publishers, and other media leaders from over 100 countries are in Moscow this week to attend the World Association of Newspapers' (WAN) 59th annual congress and the accompanying World Editors Forum.

President Putin was clearly pleased to see so many world media leaders gather in his country. WAN's congress was indeed a prime opportunity for him to defend his regime against long-standing accusations that it is bent on muzzling the media.


Addressing the delegates in his opening speech, he delivered a thinly veiled swipe at the Kremlin's detractors.


"I was very pleased to hear that, despite attempts to talk you out of this and to frighten you, the press showed responsibility and did not allow itself to be frightened but came to Moscow," Putin said.


WAN Criticism


Speaking before President Putin at the congress, WAN President Gavin O'Reilly lamented the fact that the Russian media is being gradually bought off by financial groups controlled by the Kremlin or loyal to the government.


This, O'Reilly said, was responsible for what he described as the "appallingly low" public trust in the Russian media.


"There is still very widespread skepticism," O'Reilly said, "both inside and outside your country, about whether there exists any real willingness [from the Kremlin] to see the media become a financially strong, influential, and independent participant in Russian society today."


Putin was quick to reject the accusations.


"[World Association of Newspapers head] Mr. [Gavin] O'Reilly spoke about the growing role of the state in the [Russian] mass media.," Putin said. "I have different information on this matter. The state's share in the Russian press market is decreasing steadily. It is easy to check."

"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." -- media activist Oleg Panfilov

He said that the media law adopted by Russia in 1991 was, in his words, "one of the most liberal in the world."


Split Approach


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 said. "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, not all Russia media watchers agree.


Putin (right) meets with leading representatives of Russia's newspaper industry at the Moscow congress on June 5 (epa)

Oleg Panfilov, the director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, explains to RFE/RL why he has chosen 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."


Some critics went even further in voicing their disapproval. Just before the opening ceremony, a group of activists from the radical National Bolshevik Party shouted slogans such as "Putin -- hangman of freedom"and distributed leaflets slamming the lack of freedom of expression in Russia.


COVERAGE IN RUSSIAN: To read RFE/RL's Russian Service coverage of the opening of the WAN Congress, click here and here.

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to BiggC@rferl.org​


     

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