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Russia: Putin Meets Journalists To Show Tolerance To Criticism

In an attempt to demonstrate tolerance of media criticism, Russian President Vladimir Putin over the weekend held an unusually long meeting with Russia's top journalists. But RFE/ RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that analysts, as well as some participants at the get-together, were puzzled over the timing of the meeting, in the midst of continuing official harassment of Media-Most, Russia's largest private media group.

Moscow, 15 January 2001 (RFE/RL ) -- In the Kremlin on Saturday, Vladimir Putin had almost five hours of non-stop discussion with 32 top Russian journalists -- chief editors of Russian newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations.

The official message of the highly publicized marathon meeting was clear: Russia's president, often accused of trying to curb press freedom, was demonstrating his "openness" and tolerance of media criticism.

But analysts and some participants at the get-together were left guessing what the Kremlin really hoped to achieve by the meeting, which comes amid renewed harassment of Media-Most, Russia's largest private media group, and its chief executive, Vladimir Gusinsky.

On the two days before the meeting (Jan 11-12), the offices of two Media-Most officials were searched by law-enforcement agents. Today (Monday), according to NTV television -- owned by Media-Most -- officials from Russia's Prosecutor General's office intended to question the station's accountant. And Russian prosecutors are continuing their efforts to get Gusinsky -- who is currently in Spain -- extradited to Russia.

Putin's remarks to the journalists on Saturday differed little from his previous public statements about the media. He again denied any intention to limit freedom of the press. On the contrary, he said, the government welcomes press criticism as constructive.

"Many of you express differing views on everything happening in the country and on our foreign policy initiatives and moves, and you sometimes -- maybe even very often -- make very sharp criticism. The authorities have to swallow it, is useful for authorities at any level because it forces them to react to the mistakes that those holding power sometimes make."

Several journalists present at Saturday's meeting -- including some usually supportive of Putin -- strongly criticized the government's months-long campaign against Media-Most for being politically motivated. They dismissed the official line that repayment of the group's large debts -- and not press freedom -- was the real issue at stake.

According to participants in the meeting, Putin admitted that raids by masked and armed law-enforcement officers in media offices were what he termed "nonsense." But he denied he had any control over these organs. Putin did, however, promise not to "force through" the State Duma controversial harsh amendments to Russia's current liberal law on the media.

On the NTV current-affairs program "Itogi" last night, Aleksey Venediktov, the chief editor of the Ekho Moskvy radio station -- a part of Media-Most -- underlined the importance of Putin's pledge. But Venediktov, who spoke for almost 40 minutes at Saturday's meeting, also stressed on NTV that the central problem is what he sees as the president's muddled conception of press freedom.

Venediktov explained that Putin perceives press freedom not as a democratic value but as what he called an instrument "to achieve his goal" of a strong and prosperous Russia. Venediktov said that Russian journalists are granted freedom only as long as they serve Putin's aims. He said the Kremlin viewed journalists as what he described as "hammers" meant to hammer home the Kremlin's policies.

For some analysts, Saturday's meeting may be a sign of the Kremlin's fears that growing political and social tensions in Russia could compromise media support.

Carnegie analyst Andrey Ryabov says the meeting signals a continuation of last year's Kremlin policy of trying to build what he calls an "information vertical." With such a construction, he says, the official line is imposed from the top.

But Ryabov says the meeting also reflects Kremlin fear that, despite wide support, its attempt to domesticate the media may not be succeeding. He says that, with the continuing war in Chechnya and thousands in the Russian Far East freezing after local heating systems broke down, the Kremlin seems to be "seeking to insure itself against a looming threat" of criticism.

Ryabov outlined for RFE/RL what he says was Putin's efforts at the meeting to convince editors that they should give a more optimistic twist to their reporting.

"In other words, the less there are real political improvements, the more distinctly the media should express a positive line, a positive interpretation. It is not by coincidence that, as far as I know during this meeting Putin stressed the themes of the need for 'strengthening the state,' for a 'positive outlook on reality,' and for an optimistic atmosphere."

In fact, over the past two months, many media outlets have given wide coverage to the Far East heating breakdowns showing federal authorities helpless in face of the crisis. So, it is hardly a coincidence that at Saturday's meeting -- according to state television RTR -- Putin didn't miss the opportunity to rebuke journalists for reporting only bad news on Russia's regions.