President Vladimir Putin on Monday sidestepped harsh criticism of the level of media freedom in Russia, telling an international media meeting that Russia could not have made the huge transition from the Soviet era were it not for the press. "Without a free press, the great transformations of the 1990s would have been simply impossible, and today I would like once again to underline the not only special but irreplaceable role of the written word in the making of the new Russia," Putin said at the World Newspaper Congress. Putin said that many in the world still fail to acknowledge the "grandiosity" of the changes Russia has gone through since the Soviet collapse and, with a hint of sarcasm, thanked delegates to the World Newspaper Congress for not allowing themselves to be "scared off" by dire reports of a lack of media freedom in Russia. Putin was responding to an address to more than 1,700 delegates by Gavin O'Reilly, president of the World Association of Newspapers, who appealed personally to Putin to "take vital new measures ... to help your great country develop the strong independent press that it merits." After Putin arrived at the dais in the Kremlin Palace, two young people stood up, unfurled a red-and-white flag with a hammer and sickle on it and chanted, "Putin is the executioner of freedom!" Security agents bundled the two, apparently members of the radical National Bolshevik Party, out of the hall.