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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Putin Should Have Said

A historic event took place in Moscow on June 5, though no one seemed to notice. For the first time in 15 years, a major international forum produced criticism of the state of press freedom in Russia that merited consideration.

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Speaking to an audience in the Kremlin that included President Vladimir Putin, Gavin O'Reilly, president of the World Association of Newspapers, did not limit his remarks to the problems everyone already knows about -- state control of television, the rampant acquisition of newspapers by state-controlled companies and self-censorship. In remarks delivered during the opening ceremony of WAN's annual conference, O'Reilly also offered a frank assessment of the Russian press itself.

"Today in Russia, there is still a widespread, corrupt culture of 'selling' news space and influence to politicians and businessmen in too many parts of the industry. This unethical practice of 'paid-for journalism' is unacceptable and we condemn it everywhere," O'Reilly said. "At the same time, it must also be recognized that the majority of the Russian newspaper companies still suffer a deficit of professionalism, skills and best-practice knowledge, both in management and journalistically."

If I were Putin, I would have abandoned my prepared remarks and responded by thanking the WAN chief. After all, if Putin had made the same observations, they would have been interpreted as further evidence of a crackdown on press freedom.

Putin might have responded along the following lines: "Russian politicians and editors could provide thousands of examples to illustrate O'Reilly's claims. In her recent book, former Kremlin correspondent Yelena Tregubova describes how enemies of Anatoly Chubais approached a sympathetic television station -- Boris Berezovsky's ORT -- and ordered a program portraying Chubais as a malicious, corrupt bloodsucker who had a negative impact on President Boris Yeltsin's popularity. Yeltsin's daugher Tatyana Dyachenko turns on his television set at just the right moment, and that's that. To counter such attacks, allies of Chubais acquired the popular daily newspapers Komsomolskaya Pravda and Izvestia.

"This was an independent press aimed at a one-man audience," Putin could have continued. "And working for this audience brought power and money. When I inherited this role from Yeltsin, I demanded that Media-MOST, the holding company that owned NTV, pay off the interest on its outstanding $262 million loan from state-owned Gazprom. Media-MOST was declared bankrupt, and I earned a reputation as an enemy of the free press. But would media companies in Western countries be allowed to operate this way?

"O'Reilly spoke of a lack of professionalism among Russian journalists," Putin should have concluded. "Yet 15 years of reforms could have produced three generations of professional media managers. The problem is that there is no incentive for managers to adhere to professional ethics when they can always convince politicians and businessmen to part with enormous sums for articles that praise them to the skies and savage their enemies."

If Putin had made these points in his remarks at the WAN conference, I am certain that 1,500 of the best newspaper minds from 110 countries would have dropped everything and spent the next three days talking about how to help the president create a truly free and ethical press.

This didn't happen, of course, but it is nevertheless important that in his speech O'Reilly extended a hand of solidarity to the independent press, and not to the Russian press in general. If you're talking about newspapers, this means about 50 publishers that produce at best a couple hundred of the country's 13,000 newspapers. O'Reilly's insight provides hope that the rest of the world's media community will finally start to pay attention to the real problems facing the Russian media.

Alexei Pankin is a freelance journalist in Moscow.