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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Journalists Declare It's 'Our Time' In St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG — With television celebrities from Moscow and a blessing from the Kremlin, a fledgling journalists union held its inaugural conference this week to outline plans for redefining the media's role in President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

The ambitious but shabbily organized "Our Time" media forum, which opened Wednesday to present the new Media Union, was a bizarre mixture of social event, professional conference and variety show — complete with leggy models presenting a military-inspired pret ? porter collection for the viewing pleasure of presidential envoy Viktor Cherkesov and about 500 journalists from 120 cities, followed minutes later by a priest reading out a greeting from the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

"Having come together, we must tell the state that it doesn't exist in a vacuum, that it is hired by society and should not divide the media into friendly and hostile," ORT television's anchor and deputy director Alexander Lyubimov, who started the Media Union last fall, said in opening remarks.

He added that, as a union, journalists will be better able to resist pressure from both government and media owners, and serve a self-regulatory function.

"It's necessary to draw up a new ethical code for journalists," he said.

The buzz behind the scenes at the three-day conference was that the Kremlin orchestrated the new union to undermine the existing Union of Journalists, which, after years of stagnation, became intensely critical of the government during the recent struggle for Media-MOST. In an indirect confirmation of the reports, the conference was attended by Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky, Deputy Press Minister Mikhail Seslavinsky and other government officials, but no Media-MOST representatives were present.

But organizers said their goal was to establish a new system of relations with the Kremlin and defend editorial independence.

Cherkesov said the advent of oligarch-dominated capitalism in the last five years had made the media less independent than in the early 1990s.

"One has to admit that Russian media have not yet achieved the level of influence and independence that media have in some other countries," Cherkesov said. "The press was used to defend the interests of certain clans and interest groups."

Cherkesov, now Putin's representative in the Northwestern Federal District, is a former KGB officer infamous among human rights advocates as a persecutor of dissidents, among them environmental whistle-blower Alexander Nikitin.

Cherkesov said setting up a system of government "interaction" with the media is a priority. "The authorities and the press are not business and political partners, but they are certainly not enemies," he said.

However, prominent television journalist Vladimir Pozner countered later that the "eternal contradiction" between the media and the authorities will never make the cooperation suggested by Cherkesov possible. But he said he was willing to give the new Media Union the benefit of the doubt, particularly as a professional self-regulatory body, which can formulate and enforce journalistic ethics without the government's involvement.