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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

TV Presenter and Regional Press Square Off

MTNikolai Svanidze caught in the flash of photographers' cameras during a coffee break in a wide-ranging discussion on press freedom on Sunday morning.
Russians are tired of all the facts in reports by non-state media and want a soothing, Soviet approach to the news, Nikolai Svanidze, a presenter on Rossia state television, said Sunday.

Independent regional publishers sharply countered that their readers were hungry for alternative viewpoints and all but begged for stories correcting erroneous reports in state-controlled media.

Six panelists -- including Svanidze, Izvestia's chief executive and a close associate of murdered Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze -- sparred over press freedom at the opening of an annual conference of the World Association of Newspapers. Joining them from the floor were journalists from the regions, Tajikistan and Tanzania.

Panelists named hidden advertising and a lack of financial independence as the main threats to press freedom. One panelist noted Gazprom's seemingly unstoppable expansion in media and other sectors and joked that Russia was in danger of one day being renamed Gazpromia.

Svanidze ignited the debate by saying that the range of viewpoints in mass media was shrinking because the public "has grown tired of pluralism."

"Our guests from the United States and European countries may not understand what I'm talking about, but the classic Soviet viewer is not used to alternatives," he said. "It's tiring to have a choice because you have to think."

Russian audiences "don't want either-or, they want to know exactly what's going on and what to do about it," he said.

Fellow panelist Yury Purgin, CEO of independent regional publisher Altapress, was one of numerous dissenters. "Our readers aren't tired by our offering them different opinions -- they thank us for it," Purgin said.

Irina Samokhina, director of regional publisher Krestyanin, weighed in from the floor, saying that readers of the independent papers she publishes are clamoring for alternatives.

Readers in towns and villages routinely write to Krestyanin's publications demanding investigations after seeing inaccurate information in government-controlled media, Samokhina added later on the sidelines of the conference.

"We have to tell them, 'Wait, wait, we can't do everything!'" she said.

Pyotr Godlevsky, director general of the newspaper Izvestia since 2005, said a lack of financial expertise was keeping many media organizations from being commercially independent, making editorial independence hard to maintain.

"Most problems happen on the economic level -- the levers that are used to influence the media are economic ones," Godlevsky said.

U.S. media consultant William Dunkerly concurred, suggesting Izvestia was one of the more prominent casualties.

"I've seen how propaganda masquerading as news is so prominent here," Dunkerly said. "Natural resource monopolies directed by the presidential administration ... have conscripted newspapers to serve their own interests."

Today's Events, Tomorrow's Headlines
8:15 a.m.  -- Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russian Railways, joins editors for breakfast.
10 a.m. -- Opening ceremony at the Kremlin State Palace. President Vladimir Putin welcomes participants. Golden Pen of Freedom award is presented to Iranian investigative journalist Akbar Ganji.
12:10 p.m.  -- Igor Shuvalov, Russia's G8 sherpa, meets with editors.
2 p.m.  -- Timothy Balding, CEO of the World Association of Newspapers, presents an annual report on the state of the global newspaper industry.
3 p.m.   -- Eli Noam, professor of economics and finance at Columbia University, speaks on the problems facing traditional newspapers.
4 p.m.  -- James Wales, director and founder of Wikipedia, joins Steve Herrmann, editor of BBC News Interactive, and Steve Yelvington, vice president of Morris Digital Works, to discuss whether newspapers should welcome bloggers and other citizen journalists into the news process.
8 p.m.  -- Dinner at Kolomenskoye.

The media arm of state natural gas monopoly Gazprom purchased Izvestia last June. Gazprom-Media also controls NTV, one of three national television networks, and is thought to be interested in buying the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

"By 2008," Dunkerly joked, "the country's name may be changed to Gazpromia."

Godlevsky responded that Izvestia had not received "a single kopek" directly from Gazprom.

"The creation of this holding [Gazprom-Media] has been a very important step toward the creation of commercially independent media," Godlevsky said, drawing scornful laughter from some audience members.

Godlevsky bristled at a journalist's query about Izvestia's recent decision to hire United Russia spokesman Ilya Kissilyov as deputy editor.

"It is a usual practice in all the world, in all countries, for various party functionaries" to later take up careers in journalism, he said.

Equally delicate was a discussion of hidden advertising, or zakazukha, a widespread practice in which businesses or public officials pay for articles that are presented as regular editorial content.

Journalist Alexei Pankin recalled an admission by Moskovsky Komsomolets editor Pavel Gusev that his paper routinely printed hidden advertising, and questioned whether Gusev ought to be working on the Public Chamber's new code of journalistic ethics. Gusev heads of the Public Chamber's media commission.

"I wouldn't start pointing fingers," said Svanidze, who is also a member of the Public Chamber. "Every Russian journalist sitting in this room knows that this is a painful problem that has been around for many years. For ethical reasons, I wouldn't want to start naming names."

The greatest optimism Sunday came from Ukrainskaya Pravda editor and panelist Olena Prytula. "For the first time in my practice, I'm able to talk about something Ukraine has surpassed Russia in: freedom of speech," she said.

Prytula said media freedom in Ukraine had improved markedly since the 2004 Orange Revolution, and even more so since the days of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who has been linked to the murder and decapitation of Gongadze in 2000.

Prytula and Gongadze co-founded Ukrainskaya Pravda, an Internet-only news site, earlier that year.

Prytula on Sunday stressed the importance of the Internet in avoiding and eventually breaking state control. "I can't say we have some ready medicine or pill that we can prescribe to our Russian colleagues, but the Ukrainian experience can unquestionably help," she said.

Belarussian journalist Andrei Dynko provided a counterpoint to Prytula's optimism, saying he was troubled by what he called biased Russian coverage of the Belarussian presidential election in March.

"A free press cannot be only partially free," said Dynko, editor of the newspaper Nasha Niva. "Russian journalists should know that if they allow a zone of non-freedom -- in their coverage of the CIS, for instance -- that zone will only expand.

"We saw this happen with our state media, and we've all seen how it ended."