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World Newspaper Gathering Attacks Russia’s Putin on Press Freedom on His Home Turf

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As the World Newspaper Congress and World Editors Forum convened in Moscow, the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers issued a stern warning that press freedom is deteriorating worldwide.

“In the past six months, journalists worldwide have once again been the victims of harassment, physical violence and murder. A record number of journalists were arrested and imprisoned in Nepal, Belarus, and Ethiopia. Dozens more remain in prison in China, Cuba and Eritrea. Media enterprises throughout the world have been destroyed or forced to close,” WAN, which represents 18,000 papers in 102 across the globe, said in its semiannual review of press freedom.

The organization did not back away from criticizing its meetings’ hosts: the report noted that Olga Romanova, a presenter for the Moscow television station Ren-TV, was dismissed in November ’05 for publicly protesting internal censorship at the channel, and it said criminal defamation is also regularly employed in Russia as a tool to harass media.

In addition, mass anti-government demonstrations in Belarus following the March 19 reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko led to the arrest of scores of protesters and journalists. During a two-week period, more than 30 local journalists were arrested and detained while covering the demonstrations.

Addressing Putin Directly

WAN President Gavin O’Reilly opened the 59th World Newspaper Congress and 13th World Editors Forum in Moscow with a bang today by telling Russian President Vladimir Putin he should take measures to encourage press freedom in Russia and forgo control and influence over the media. O’Reilly spoke directly to Putin, who was present along with a number of Russian officials and politicians, saying his legacy would be judged “as much by the fate of the media — perhaps more — than by any other measure.”

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, noting absence of independent national television, the purchase of many important newspaper titles by 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,” O’Reilly said. He told Putin there was “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.”

O’Reilly told Putin the best reason for holding the Congress and Forum in Moscow was the opportunity 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 remarks, 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.”

He also said the simple fact that he and O’Reilly were speaking on the issue 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.”

Press Freedom Report Results

Back to the WAN world press freedom report released over the weekend, it says thirty-eight journalists have been killed since November 2005. The organization says that number would be even higher if journalists weren’t censoring themselves in Colombia and the Philippines in particular, two of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, where, WAN says, “murderers operate with impunity.” Seven journalists have been killed in the Philippines and one in Colombia in the past six months.

Iraq remains the most dangerous place to practice journalism, with 16 killed since November ’05, including four in a week in March who were all “specifically targeted and ambushed by unidentified gunmen.”

Regionally, Iran continues to lock up bloggers, including Arash Sigarchi who received a three-year prison sentence for “insulting the Supreme Guide” and for “propaganda against the regime.” Mojtaba Saminejad has been behind bars since February 2005 for posting material online deemed “offensive to Islam.”

Publisher and “press freedom hero” Gebran Tueni was murdered in Lebanon, six months after the June 2005 slaying of Samir Kassir, a political columnist for the same newspaper.

WAN calls Asia “the region with the worst press freedom record in the world,” with the governments of Burma, China and North Korea among the “most repressive in the world.” Over 30 journalists are behind bars in China and in April the country’s media oversight body ordered television broadcasters to stop using international news footage and called for greater “political and propaganda discipline.”

In Nepal, more than 400 journalists were arrested in 2005 following the state of emergency declared by King Gyanendra, a measure that suspended all democratic rights and freedoms in the country.

Cuba, with 24 journalists in prison, is the America’s most “notorious jailors of journalists.” Twenty-three of them were victims of the March 2003 crackdown on the press and many have developed serious health problems while in captivity.

In the U.S., WAN criticized Google for “plac[ing] profit ahead of principle” by censoring its Chinese language search engine launched in February. Google says the people of China are better served by having a censored search engine over none at all. The report also accused Yahoo, Cisco Systems, and Microsoft of censorship or aiding the government in free speech crackdowns.

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