Addressing more than 1700 senior newspaper executives from 110 countries, in the presence of President Putin, other Russian leaders and foreign ambassadors, O’Reilly said control of the media by the state and its allies was hindering the ability of a free press to contribute to Russian development.
He pinpointed the absence of independent national television, which has been brought under direct or indirect government control, the purchase of many important newspaper titles by financial and industrial groups directly controlled by government or loyal to it, and the creation of an atmosphere of caution and self-censorship among journalists.
"All available evidence demonstrates that a strong, free and independent press is a fundamental precondition for truly sustainable economic, social and political prosperity," he says. " Whilst once only the mantra of groups like WAN, this argument has now been accepted, embraced and adopted by governments and inter-governmental organisations world-wide.
"The World Bank President put it succinctly in a recent speech, when he said, You really can’t talk about economic development without talking about freedom of the press."
O’Reilly said there was "widespread scepticism, both inside and outside your country, about whether there exists any real willingness to see the media become a financially-strong, influential and independent participant in Russian society today."
He said that WAN "had been criticised by many for its decision to hold these events in Russia, precisely because of the concerns of our community about the press freedom situation here and the apparent lack of progress towards the establishment of strong, independent media that can fulfil their proper role in democratic debate.
"One of our several arguments to these opponents was that we might finally have an opportunity, in coming here to Moscow, to appeal to you personally to take vital new measures, to personally create the tone, if you like, to help your great and fine country develop the strong press that it merits and which can only add to the prestige and influence of Russia on the world stage."
Putin responded to O’Reilly’s comments about the state’s role in Russia media by saying, "the number of state assets in the Russian press market is steadily decreasing.
"Fifty-three thousand periodicals exist in Russia today. It would be absolutely impossible to control them even if the state had an interest in doing so."
He said that the fact that he and O’Reilly were speaking on the issue inside the Kremlin reflected the vast changes that have occurred in Russia. "Today we are discussing the problems of the press in a critical way. You cannot imagine such a situation ten or 12 or 15 years ago," Putin said.
The 59th World Newspaper Congress, 13th World Editors Forum and Info Services Expo 2006, the global meetings of the world’s press, concludes this Wednesday.