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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Don't Use Free Press as a Buzzword

As intriguing as it would be to summarily hand over a 49 percent stake in ORT, Russia's largest television broadcaster, to "journalists and other representatives of creative intelligentsia," the reality behind media mogul Boris Berezovsky's somewhat flashy proposal is just another depressing reminder that press freedom, for the time being, remains a distant prospect.

Worse still, it has evolved directly from forbidden-fruit status to the ranks of cynical buzzwords without the traditional middle step of ever being properly achieved. Media analysts who accuse Berezovsky's fist-pounding letter to Vladimir Putin -- publicized Monday and reprinted in full in the column at right -- of being a thinly veiled attempt to disguise personal vengeance as concern for the public good show that although Russian officials have gotten better at talking the talk, their primary goal remains, as ever, to better serve their own interests.

At the heart of the alleged dispute is the Kremlin's displeasure over ORT's coverage of the Kursk submarine disaster. But in the end, the incident proved to be 10 traumatic days that left neither Putin nor the media looking terribly impressive. The president emerged with a barely manageable public relations fiasco; the press, hamstrung by misinformation and lack of access, were reminded yet again how shaky their foundation is.

If anything, the media's achievement was in raising national outrage to a fever pitch; that they did it by publicizing their own helplessness is not necessarily a triumph of good journalism. Komsomolskaya Pravda's decision to spotlight its 18,000 ruble ($650) purchase of the list of Kursk sailors was both a very savvy and a very cynical move: The story behind the story very nearly eclipsed the importance of the list itself.

Likewise, Berezovsky's brandishing of the press-freedom ideal seems to reduce a worthy battle cry to little more than a disposable and fairly obvious tool for furthering his standoff with the Putin government. During his pro-Kremlin days, Berezovsky wasn't often heard clamoring for a free press; now, when it suits his new agenda as a Kremlin oppositionist, the cause is suddenly a compelling one. If Putin could somehow be positioned as the enemy of whales, orphans and the ozone layer as well, Berezovsky could have a banner day.

The press has enough of a struggle on its hands in Russia. Cynical abuse by "liberal" power players shouldn't be counted among them. Transferring a 49 percent stake in ORT for journalists and intellectuals is a nice daydream, but the story behind the story still looks like hypocrisy.