MOSCOW -- Members of a U.S. Congressional delegation urged the Russian government Friday to respect press freedom, calling it a key condition for the country's democratic development and cooperation with the West.
"We feel strongly that if Russia is to be integrated into the West, into the European Community, that freedom of speech and the press is very, very important," Dick Gephardt, leader of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives, said at a news conference.
Many in the West have expressed concern about media freedom in Russia after government-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom took over NTV, the only independent nationwide television channel, and other news outlets which belonged to embattled tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky.
Mr. Gusinsky and his supporters say that the takeover was punishment for the media organizations' criticism of President Vladimir Putin. But Gazprom says the moves were strictly matters of business.
Mr. Putin's critics in Russia and abroad have also pointed at authorities barring independent media from the warring republic of Chechnya as another sign of a media crackdown.
Mr. Gephardt and members of his delegation raised the freedom of press issue at their meetings with Russian officials and also met with representatives of the independent media.
"There is no democracy if there is no free expression and no free press," said Jane Harman, a California Democrat. "We are here to celebrate many things that are going well in this country [and] to learn about many things that may not be going as well."
Members of the delegation also discussed other issues, including the U.S. missile defense plans that Russia vehemently opposes.
"We have discussed a lot about missile defense," Mr. Gephardt said. "I believe we should also be pressing forward with cooperative efforts to reduce common threats to our nations."
"We should continue to pursue nuclear weapons cuts through reciprocal and verifiable reductions and we must work more closely together to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," he added.
The delegation members later met with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who said that the U.S.-Russian relations have become more stable following last month's summit between President Bush and Mr. Putin.
"We are beginning a new stage of interaction and cooperation on many issues that really requires our joint effort," Mr. Ivanov said.
Copyright (c) 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.