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A great writer who was dying of cancer once told a television interviewer, days before his death, that he had decided to call his cancer Rupert. The reason, he said, was that the media proprietor Rupert Murdoch represented a cancer that was destroying the media world.

The remark had both a particular and a general point. The writer was English, and he detested Murdoch’s influence on the London-based media, including newspapers, television and books that Murdoch’s companies have controlled for many years.

The general point was that the creativity of writers and journalists is always antithetical to proprietors like Murdoch. If countries and cultures allow proprietors to determine what is published, creativity will dry up; language itself will be corrupted; ideas will become propaganda; and media work will become hack work.

This is hardly a novel idea, and this isn’t the place to argue it.

What should be obvious is that, judged by the standards of proprietors like Murdoch, Russia has the freest press in the world. That’s also why Murdoch himself has toyed with buying into Boris Berezovsky’s media, and also Vladimir Gusinsky’s. It’s the reason why a consortium of proprietors including Ted Turner, the Modern Times Group of Sweden and George Soros are offering more than $300 million for a minority share of about 25 percent in Gusinsky’s Media-MOST group.

No one in their right mind spends that much money, unless they plan to make a lot more. And no one can seriously consider doing that with a 25 percent stake in any Russian corporation, let alone one with a partner like Gusinsky. So how can a $300 million investment in Media-MOST make a creditable rate of return? Only by the same method Gusinsky used – underwriting from the Kremlin.

To confirm just what the proprietors mean by freedom, they wrote a letter to President Vladimir Putin asking him for the Kremlin’s guarantee of that freedom. Then they lobbied the new U.S. secretary of state and the new national security adviser to issue statements backing both sides of the transaction -Gusinsky’s right to sell, and the Turner group’s right to buy, free of any interference by the Russian state.

This transaction, said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice after meeting Gusinsky’s deputy, Igor Malashenko, had to be guaranteed by the Kremlin because “democracy is important.” Colin Powell got his State Department spokesman and his ambassador to Russia to amplify on that. According to the spokesman, “We have always supported freedom of the press, and seen it as a vital core of Russia’s new democracy.”

Before he recently became secretary of state, Powell was working with Turner on another, much bigger transaction – the merger of Time Warner with America Online. For the fun of it, let’s suppose Powell had been working with Gusinsky, or any other Russian, in a bid to buy 25 percent of Time Warner.

And let’s suppose the Russian in the deal felt nervous about the fate and profitability of his investment, so he asked Powell to deliver a letter to President George W. Bush, asking for guarantees. And then he asked Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to send his spokesman to the daily briefing to announce; “We have always supported freedom of the press, and seen it as a vital core of America’s democracy.”

What do you think Bush and the entire American political establishment would reply? Two rude syllables would suffice. But for the record, the Russian media proprietor would be told that foreigners (Russian or Israeli, there’s no distinction in the Communications Act) are not allowed to own more than 20 percent of the capital stock of a company licensed to broadcast on America’s airwaves.

In other words, what Turner & Co. are proposing to do in Russia, for which they have asked for the Kremlin’s solemn guarantee, would be illegal in the United States. That’s what freedom of the press means in Russia.

And just for extra fun, let’s suppose that a Russian proprietor would go to lunch with the Swedish ambassador to Moscow; he is very keen on supporting Media-MOST with a smorgasbord. The purpose would be to ask the Swedish government, currently the president of the European Union, to provide a guarantee from the Union, and from Stockholm, too, for a bid to acquire control of television, radio and newspapers in one or more European cities.

The response would be the same. In Britain, Germany, France and other European countries there are explicit legislative limits on cross-media ownership, on foreign takeovers and on competition in the media markets. Even where foreign investment is not specifically restricted – in Germany, for example – the practical effect of the system of provincial and federal regulation is that foreign media capital cannot operate effectively without domestic partners who exercise control.

In Australia, where Murdoch got his start, and where there are just a handful of proprietors owning all media, Gusinsky wouldn’t stand a chance. No foreigner can own more than 15 percent of a television company, and no combination of foreigners can own more than 20 percent. The limit is 25 percent for a mass-circulation newspaper. Australian media proprietors are required by law to choose whether to own a television broadcasting license, a radio license, or a daily newspaper in the same license area. It is not permitted to own more than one.

The only guarantee the Australian government grants foreign investors in media properties is a hearing before a foreign investment review board. That has the power to recommend to the government to accept or reject a transaction, according to an assessment of its impact on the domestic media market.

In other words, the only country in the entire democratic world where Gusinsky is free to sell, and Turner & Co. is free to buy, properties like Media-MOST, is Russia.

Putin hasn’t replied to Turner’s letter or Powell’s lobbying yet. But his answer should be obvious, at least to any democrat. A state guarantee of freedom of the press must be founded, as it is in the United States, Europe and Australia, on a solid constitutional and legislative base. That is the only guarantee Turner should be seeking; the only guarantee he deserves.

In Russia, freedom of the press, as defined by proprietors, must be regulated by law and brought into conformity with the norms of the United States, the European Union, Australia and other democracies. Russia must have legislation defining the threshold of control for foreign ownership and for concentration of ownership. It must have legislation defining cross-media ownership rules.

It must have procedures for public monitoring and review of applications for capital acquisition, share transfers and changes in market share and control.

Media proprietorship, including state-controlled media like the British Broadcasting Corp. and similar organizations around the world, must be subject to the same laws, the same standards and the same accountability.

In short, Putin should tell Turner &. Co. it is too soon for any foreign bid to acquire media assets from Gusinsky, or anyone else. As for what should happen to Media-MOST, its fate should not depend on Alfred Kokh and Gazprom. They should wait at the same red light that should halt the Turner bid.

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