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Last Updated: Monday, 5 June 2006, 18:34 GMT 19:34 UK
Putin grilled over press freedom
Putin reacts to a speech at the World Association of Newspapers Congress
Vladimir Putin faced direct questioning about media freedom
A meeting of more than 1,000 newspaper executives and editors from around the world has opened in Moscow with harsh criticism of Russia's media freedom.

President Vladimir Putin, who was at the opening of the World Association of Newspapers Congress, was urged to do more to develop a free press.

In reply, Mr Putin insisted that the Russian state was not increasing its control over the media.

The opening was also marked by an anti-Putin protest by two youngsters.


The BBC's Damian Grammaticas in Moscow says things did not start well. More than 1,700 editors and media figures from 100 countries had gathered for the opening ceremony. They listened to musical interludes while waiting for President Putin to arrive.

Your country and your administration have been severely criticised internationally for an alleged unwillingness to forego control and influence over the media
Gavin O'Reilly,
association president

Timothy Balding, the Chief Executive of the World Association of Newspapers, apologised for improvising and making changes to the schedule.

He asked the orchestra to fill some time, joking that in the past it was Swan Lake which was played when Soviet leaders died, now Sleeping Beauty was being performed as they waited for Russia's president.

The conference's participants were due to have lunch at midday, but at that point they were still seated, yet to hear Mr Putin's speech. The Kremlin says the president was late, but only by five minutes, and that both sides agreed to change the order of speeches.

When Mr Putin did enter the hall, two protesters, members of the National Bolshevik Party, leapt from their seats, brandishing a flag bearing a hammer and sickle and shouting "No to censorship!" and "Russia without Putin!" They were quickly removed.

Plea for free press

Mr Putin then had some uncomfortable moments as the association's president, Gavin O'Reilly, raised what he said were deeply held concerns about press freedom in Russia.

"Your country and your administration have been severely criticised internationally for an alleged unwillingness to forego control and influence over the media," Mr O'Reilly said.

Protesters grabbed by security officers
National Bolshevik protesters were bundled out of the building
He asked why the Russian state was accused of creating an atmosphere of self-censorship and fear in the press, why the government and industrial groups linked to it had been taking control of the media, especially TV channels and why local media were coming under similar control.

"There is still very 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," Mr O'Reilly said.

He concluded by appealing personally to Russia's president to "take vital new measures... to help your great country develop the strong independent press that it merits".

Mr Putin sidestepped most of the issues, saying that the proportion of state ownership in the media was decreasing and that a free press was a key guarantor of Russia's democracy.

"Without a free press, the great transformations of the 1990s would have been simply impossible, and today I would like once again to underline the not only special but irreplaceable role of the written word in the making of the new Russia," Mr Putin said.


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