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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

World Press Descends on City

The Kremlin has complained about Russia's image in the Western media and hired an international public relations firm to improve foreign coverage of the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg next month. But starting this weekend, it will have an opportunity to deliver its message directly to the people who run the world's newspapers.

Some 1,500 editors, publishers and senior executives from 111 countries are descending on the city for a four-day annual conference, held in Moscow for the first time. While discussing trends in the global newspaper business, they will also be trying to gauge for themselves the state of press freedom in Russia.

Mikhail Seslavinsky, head of the Federal Press Agency, said Thursday that he hoped "the people who come to Moscow will be able to immerse themselves in an atmosphere that at times contradicts the sometimes-funny stereotypes about a wild country with total censorship and endless criminal conflicts."

President Vladimir Putin will welcome the participants during a Kremlin ceremony on Monday, and at least two senior officials will be sitting down with the visiting editors during the conference.

The World Association of Newspapers acknowledged that its selection of Russia as the location for its conference had raised hackles among many of its members, who questioned the wisdom of meeting in a country perceived to have a poor record on media freedom.

"Many believed that the WAN event might be 'used' by the Russian authorities to claim that we were giving them some kind of stamp of approval," WAN chief executive officer Timothy Balding said by e-mail.

Other members, however, argued that it would be better to speak about their "serious concerns" in Russia itself, Balding said.

A final decision was made in November 2004, with Moscow beating out Barcelona, Spain, and Goteborg, Sweden. WAN refused to accept a bid from Shanghai because of concerns about freedom of the press in China, said the Russian Guild of Press Publishers, which invited WAN to Moscow.

Seslavinsky, speaking at a news conference, said Russia welcomed a discussion of press freedom.

"We are counting on a serious discussion about this issue inasmuch as freedom of speech is a pressing problem not only for our country and newly independent states, but also for many countries in Europe and the United States," he said.

"In the course of the congress, we will openly demonstrate to the whole publishing world what is happening in our country and what problems we have, and we will say how difficult the 20-year period of freedom of speech has been and what challenges the 21st century has thrown."

The 59th annual World Newspaper Congress and accompanying 13th World Editors Forum begins Sunday morning with four round-table discussions, one of which is titled "The Russian Media: From Dictatorship to Democracy?"

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov will throw a welcoming party in the Moscow International Music House on Sunday evening.

Attendees also will meet past and "possible future" leaders of Russia at breakfasts or lunches, WAN said in a statement. They include Mikhail Gorbachev and two people whom WAN is billing as possible successors to Putin: First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the president of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin.

Yakunin, who has denied having any presidential ambitions, "made it known to us that he would be willing to speak if we asked him," Balding said. "It seemed like a good idea, because he's one more influential personality on the program."

Yakunin will give a speech about "Russia in future headlines and the role of the news media in developing democracies," a Yakunin aide said. The railways company is a WAN partner for the conferences.

Medvedev, who oversees a multibillion-dollar Kremlin plan to improve heath care, housing, agriculture and education, is widely thought to be in a neck-and-neck race with Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov for Putin's nomination as preferred successor. Ivanov, who is not scheduled to speak at the conferences, has shown contempt for the media, barring Defense Ministry officials and military personnel from speaking with ABC News reporters after the U.S. television network aired an interview with Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev. Ivanov did not have the authority to impose the ban because the activities of foreign reporters are regulated by the Foreign Ministry.

Editors also will meet with Igor Shuvalov, Russia's G8 sherpa, and State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, a member of the democratic opposition, will give a breakfast speech.

Among the topics to be discussed next week are the role of citizen journalism, with the founder of Wikipedia participating, and the lessons of the Prophet Mohammed cartoon clashes. Denmark's Jyllands-Posten, which sparked protests in Islamic countries and a debate in journalistic circles by publishing 12 cartoons depicting the prophet in September, is sending two representatives.

WAN defended the decision to hold the conference in Russia. "We believe that our members want to see and hear for themselves what's going on here, particularly with regard to press freedom," Balding said. "We also want to give a clear sign to our Russian colleagues that we are sympathetic with the ongoing struggle to establish a strong, independent and economically viable press." Hundreds of Russian journalists will also attend.

WAN's latest press-freedom protest, on May 18, was directed toward Russia. It expressed concern about a defamation lawsuit brought by a Rostov regional lawmaker against a local weekly, Krestyanin. "We will observe the progress of this case with great interest over the coming weeks and will discuss its outcome during the congress in Moscow," WAN said in a statement at the time.

In addition to promoting press freedom, another reason to hold the meeting in Moscow was to bring the international newspaper experience closer to Russian editors and publishers, many of whom cannot afford to participate in WAN activities in other parts of the world, Balding said.

Eugene Abov, vice president of the Guild of Press Publishers, said the selection of Moscow was an acknowledgment that the "independent press in Russia is represented quite sufficiently and the problems that it experiences are not that different from the problems that the press experiences in many other markets.

"It's necessary for such congresses to come to the country to assist in resolving these problems," said Abov, who is a WAN board member and deputy general director of the media holding Prof-Media.

Some of the participants will bring their wives and guests to the conference, bringing the total number of participants to 1,700. "This is a record turnout," WAN spokesman Larry Kilman said.

Last year's gathering in Seoul, South Korea, drew about 1,350 people from 80 countries.

A reason for Moscow's record attendance might be a desire to discover Russia, Balding said.

One way participants can get a peek at Russia is via a web tour at www.moscow2006.com/eng/rbth/main. "We want the stereotypes that periodically appear in the Western press about Russia to be as few as possible and vanish altogether over time," said Ruben Vardanyan, chairman of Troika Dialog, which is sponsoring the tour.

WAN is planning to issue a press-freedom protest during the conference -- but not until Tuesday, after Putin greets the delegates.

The protest is expected to target three countries, including Belarus, a close ally of Russia, the WAN spokesman said. The other two are China and Eritrea.

WAN's board will make a final decision about which countries will be targeted on Saturday -- creating an unusual three-day lag before the protest is made public.

"Decisions like these are usually made public on the same day," Abov said. "The reason why this gap is taking place is very strange."

Balding did not say whether the delay was linked to possible concern about Russia's sensitivity to criticism of Belarus, explaining that he did not know which countries the board would pick.

"You can be sure of one thing, however: The location of the conference will not influence their choice," he said.

Manana Aslamazyan, director of Internews Russia, a media freedom watchdog, said the conference would advance Russian journalism by providing an outside look and a feeling that professional and independent writing bonds reporters worldwide. "There is an international journalistic community united by professional commitments," she said.

"Russia is out of it, but we would like to be a part."

Based in Paris, WAN represents more than 18,000 publications on five continents and sets for itself the goal of promoting press freedom and economic viability.