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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Bizarre Path Toward a Free Press

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Russia is becoming something of a Mecca for international media. In June 2006, it hosted the 59th World Association of Newspapers Congress. In late May, journalists gathered in Moscow for the Congress of the International Federation of Journalists, for a kind of journalists' summit. And in June, Publishing Expo 2007 attracted the heads of the world's leading publishing associations: The World Association of Newspapers, The International Federation of the Periodical Press and the International Association of Newspaper and Media Technology.

So, while international indicators and reports show press freedoms declining year after year, with clampdowns on foreign-funded NGOs for providing free assistance to the media, leading international media professionals are converging on the country in a nonstop succession of summits.

Both of this year's Moscow events took place in the World Trade Center on Krasnopresnenskaya, and entering the building on the different dates you had the sense of entering two different countries.

At the journalists summit -- at least during the sessions dealing with Russia -- there were nothing but lamentations of a loss of press freedoms in recent years, censorship and a lack of investigation into journalists' killings. The mood was morose.

The publishers' expo, by contrast, was a beehive of activity. Russian attendees behaved as if they had just woken from a long sleep, and discovering how far they had fallen behind the rest of the publishing world, vigorously set out to make up for lost time by learning all they could from progressive foreign publishers. The buzzwords were dynamism and development.

These were actually two sides of the same coin in a country moving along a fairly bizarre path toward the creation of a normal, independent press. During the 1990s, the government showed almost limitless tolerance for pluralism in the media. But economic policy stifled any chance for publishers to achieve financial independence. So the media were drawn into the highly profitable black market of propaganda for corporate and political clients. The journalists sold their much-loved pluralism to the highest bidder.

In the new century, the economic picture improved significantly. The sale of printed publications increased by 13.7 percent from 2005 to 2006, generating $2.42 billion in revenues, according to state figures. Investment rose by one-third over the same period, reaching $2.05 billion, and advertising in all media climbed by 29 percent, to $6.5 billion. Media organizations achieved greater financial transparency, thereby attracting increased interest from foreign investors and suppliers.

One leading Western exhibitor told me his company was returning to Russia after 17 years, while another was happy to see that his main competitors were no-shows at the expo. But tolerance toward the media has fallen, resulting in lopsided development. The international federation president said the magazine sector in Russia had reached world standards and was developing at breakneck speed, while the general director of the newspaper association, Timothy Balding, noted that Russia's newspapers still failed to meet the demands of their readers. The reason is clear. Magazines cover mostly lifestyle topics, so the authorities have little interest in their content. But newspapers cover politics, and the publisher-reader relationship is influenced by other than purely market considerations.

It seems as if this situation will continue into 2008, which will likely bring the next phase in independence. What should we expect? I like Balding's answer at the expo. "With the passage of time and the increasing exposure of publishers to newspaper business developments elsewhere in the world," Balding said, "there is doubtless more and more lassitude about political issues related to the press and a greater will to just get on with the job of producing better and more profitable newspapers."

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Strategii i Praktika Izdatelskogo Biznesa, a magazine for publishing business professionals.