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Monday, June 05, 2006

Russia Conducts Sham World Newspaper Congress

The St. Petersburg Times reports that yesterday Russia hosted the World Newspaper Congress even while denying various critical journalist access to the country, the reverse situation of when, in Neo-Soviet fashion, it refused to allow a famous opera singer to leave. Just as Russia is being afforded a sham presence in the G-8 and on the U.N. human rights committee, it is using this opportunity of a sham presence on a world press body to spit in the eye of basic human rights and liberal political values as the Neo-Soviet Union consolidates itself with the cowardly acquiescence of the West, exactly as it happened under Stalin.

Journalists Shut Out of World Press Event
By Martin Burlund
Special to St. Petersburg Times

Despite press freedom coming under fire in Russia, 1,700 editors, directors and other media professionals from 110 countries will gather in Moscow on Sunday for the World Newspaper Congress (WNC).
But in choosing Russia as host, the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) will have to do without some of their colleagues.

For a foreigner to participate in WNC, a Russian visa is required. Yet Russian authorities, by denying visas, have prevented certain journalists from entering the country.

One such journalist, Vibeke Sperling, is a veteran Danish correspondent who worked in Russia and the Soviet Union for 25 years.

She is dismayed by WAN’s decision to hold the congress in a country where freedom of the press is largely restricted, according to watchdog Journalists Without Borders and think tank Freedom House.
“I find it worrying that this conference is being held in Moscow,” Sperling said by telephone from Copenhagen on Wednesday. However, the journalist added she hopes the conference will draw attention to the problem of press freedom in Russia.

Sperling has been repeatedly denied a visa to Russia since October 2003. This year, she will not be able to attend the congress even though the management of her newspaper, the Danish daily Politiken, has pressured Russian authorities to grant her a visa. “The answer from the Russian embassy [in Copenhagen] was ‘no reason whatsoever’ for denying me a visa,” Sperling said.

She says she has never experienced Russia to be as closed as it is today — including during the Soviet era.
“Back [in the Soviet era], I waited for a long time in order to get a visa, but I always got it,” she said.
Sperling believes her visa problems stem from her coverage of Chechnya and her reporting on the decline of press freedom in Russia.

But Sperling’s case is hardly unique.

In the Czech Republic, war reporter Petra ProchÇzkovÇ has been banned from traveling to Russia; in May she was denied a visa, according to her colleagues at Czech Television Channel Ceska Televize.

ProchÇzkovÇ has been denied entry to Russia for more than five years, although Vaclav Havel, the Czech Republic’s former president, has intervened on her behalf. She is currently reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) estimates that at least ten journalists are on the so-called Russian visa “black list,” according to the Danish newspaper Information.

Timothy Balding, chief executive officer of WAN, said in an email interview Thursday that he had not been informed of the visa denials by the journalists affected and that, had he known of the cases, the conference might not have been held in Moscow.

“WAN made it absolutely clear to the Russian authorities from the start of planning for the conference, more than two years ago, that the refusal of any visa on political or ‘security’ grounds might be a case for the cancellation of the event.”

Balding even received personal assurances from the Russian government that Sperling would not have any problem obtaining a visa for the Moscow event.

Larry Kilman, WAN spokesman, said that he is sorry that journalists are being kept away from the industry event, and that WAN would have protested had they known of these cases; the journalists affected, however, did not contact WAN following the rejection of their visa applications.

Nonetheless, Kilman is keen that the congress be held in Moscow.

“Of course there were a lot of participants who complained about the conference taking place in Russia, because of the problems with press freedom in the country, but the benefits far outnumber the problems,” Kilman said by telephone from Paris on Wednesday.

“Russian publishers will benefit from this conference… because bringing an international conference to Russia will give the local press community, which lacks funds, a presence. Another reason is that we want to support any progress on press freedom, and some of the Russian publishers believe that bringing WNC will help making progress on press freedom in the country.”

Sperling, however, does not believe that the Russian press is going to become more free in the near future. She said she has little hope that she would be granted a visa any time soon.

“If we look back at Russia’s history, it is well known that the leaders hand over power to new leaders who resemble them, which means that the people of Russia will have no real choice in future elections, so I do not think that the press freedom will improve much,” Sperling said.

But Dmitry Ruschin, associate professor at the journalism faculty of St. Petersburg State University, defended the state of press freedom in Russia.

“Speculation [on press freedom in Russia] in the western world is far from the reality of what is here in Russia. It’s possible for anybody to search for information on the Internet and to express their point of view on radio stations such as Ekho Moskvy, although it is true that what is televised is restricted by the authorities,” Ruschin said Wednesday.

Ruschin said that press freedom exists, despite presidential and local authorities’ influence, which he described as a problem.

MÊrta-Lisa Magnusson, lecturer at Copenhagen University, has also experienced difficulties in working with the Russian authorities.

In 2000 she was denied a visa to Russia when she wanted to attend a meeting concerning Chechnya, a region which she has covered extensively in the Danish press.

She says that Russia has a huge problem concerning the war-torn region, where she says journalists are allowed to report only in the company of Russian forces.

“This is the big question for the WNC — what do the Russian authorities have to say about Chechnya,” Magnusson said by Thursday in a telephone interview from Denmark.

Magnusson obtained a tourist visa last year to St. Petersburg, but will not attend the congress in Moscow on Sunday.

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