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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Schroder Urges Putin On Press Freedom

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ST. PETERSBURG — German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der urged President Vladimir Putin to protect media freedom as he launched a visit to St. Petersburg on Monday.

"A strong Russia, which we would all like to see, needs a civil society just as it needs media which can freely carry out their task of informing people and monitoring the government," he said.

Putin said the government should guarantee press freedom but would not interfere in what he called a business dispute over control of Russia's only independent national television channel, NTV.

Putin was commenting publicly for the first time since journalists at NTV began protests a week ago over efforts to take over the station by state-dominated gas monopoly Gazprom.

"Freedom of the press should, of course, be assured but it can be assured only under economic and legal conditions that are equal and acceptable to everyone," Putin said through a translator, in a joint interview with Schr?der shown on Germany's ZDF television.

The NTV journalists, many of whom have criticized Putin on air, accuse the Kremlin of orchestrating efforts to silence them. But the president described the affair as a business dispute among the shareholders and management of the company.

Click here to read our special report on the Struggle for Media-MOST.

"I don't think I, under these conditions, have the right to interfere in this conflict between different economic players," he said. "I would agree with you that the state should not neglect to guarantee the freedom of expression of any citizen and especially press freedom."

Schr?der did not mention NTV directly at the meeting, but on arrival in St. Petersburg earlier Monday he had said the "NTV item" would certainly be on the agenda, without being central to his talks.

Putin told the meeting that Russian-German relations were on a good footing and stagnation that had set in two or three years ago had ended.

Schr?der and Putin were also expected to focus on issues like Russian debt and Berlin's efforts to smooth strained ties between Russia and the United States.

Schr?der said at the meeting that Germany and Europe wanted to help Russia wherever they could. Putin said his talks with the German leader would focus on the "building of a new Europe."

Schr?der was accompanied by Finance Minister Hans Eichel and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer for the talks, in which Moscow's huge debts were expected to figure strongly.

Germany is Russia's main trade partner and creditor, with Moscow owing Berlin 40 percent of its $40 billion Paris Club debt. Russia wants to swap some of the debt for investment in Russia.

Troubled relations between Moscow and Washington were also to feature in the talks. Ties have suffered from spy scandals and tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, Russia's 19-month war in Chechnya and America's downgrading of Moscow in its foreign policy.

Schr?der, who met President George W. Bush in Washington for talks 11 days ago, hopes to foster dialogue between the former Cold War foes but will not mediate directly, aides say.

Schr?der wants Germany to review its own ties with Russia in view of Bush's desire to push ahead with a missile defense shield. Moscow warns the project will trigger a new arms race.

(AP, Reuters)