In a move to spruce up Russia’s image abroad, the Kremlin replaces a major news agency with a media organization to be run by an outspoken critic of the West.
An employee of the RIA Novosti output department working without lights during the Earth Hour in Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti / Sergey Kuznetsov
Vladimir Putin has signed a decree to dismantle one of Russia’s biggest and longest-standing news agencies, RIA Novosti, as well as Voice of Russia, a radio station with an audience of over 100 million people in 160 countries, replacing them with a new international information agency, “Rossiya Segodnya,” to be based at RIA Novosti.
The new agency is to be headed by Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of a Sunday primetime news analysis program at Rossiya, a state-funded TV channel with the second biggest national audience. The head of “Rossiya Segodnya” is to be appointed and relieved of his duties by the president of Russia, the decree says.
Kiselyov, 59, is widely known as a fierce opponent of the West and an ardent champion of the recent controversial initiatives put forward by the Kremlin-backed United Russia party, which now has a majority in Russia’s parliament. These include a ban on adoptions of Russian children into American homes and a ban on propaganda of homosexuality among minors.
Kiselyov’s strong conviction is that “the U.S. has forged a strategic alliance with radical Islamists and Al-Qaeda... to wreak chaos in the Islamic world... and spread it to Russia and China.”
The news about Kiselyov’s appointment as the head of a new media organization to be housed at RIA Novosti’s building on the Garden Ring, 2 km to the south of the Kremlin, came as a complete surprise to the 2,300 RIA staffers on Monday morning.
"I learned the news from Twitter," says Valery Levchenko, deputy editor-in-chief of RIA Novosti. “We’ve been informed that this decision has been made and that the agency is to keep working as usual up to the point when the liquidation procedure has been completed. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the RIA staff. As far as I understand, we’ll be kept posted."
"The new organization will have a different profile, I guess," Levchenko said. “RIA’s ambition was to work in the media world, we were perceived as an equal player by international news agencies. Now this paradigm is likely to change. I don’t think the new organization will brand itself as a news agency anymore.”
Lower-level staffers of RIA, apparently, were taken aback by the news. “People of good will from all across the planet are sending their condolences. The dead man is accepting them with gratitude,” a reporter at RIA’s English desk, Alexey Eremenko, wrote on his Facebook page on Monday afternoon. “So far he can’t comment on the situation, because he himself doesn’t know a thing.”
At a corporate meeting convened five hours after the news broke, the staff learned that RIA will continue operation up to March 8, to allow its journalists to cover the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics, and that all projects targeted at the Russian audience will be wound up, while those targeted at the international audience will be continued, a reporter with the RAPSI courtroom news department of RIA, Maria Gusarova, tweeted from the meeting on Monday evening.
The Kremlin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, told RIA earlier on Monday that the reasoning behind the reorganization of RIA is to “use state budget funds more rationally and to bolster the performance of state-run media.”
“Russia is pursuing an independent policy and firmly guards its national interests,” Ivanov told RIA. “It’s very difficult to explain it to the world, but it’s something that can and should be done.” Ivanov added that the budgets of state-run media organizations will be reduced starting next year.
The news came as a shock for another major media organization funded from the state coffers, Russia Today, or RT TV channel, which has a global reach of over 644 million people in 100+ countries. The name of the future news agency, “Rossiya Segodnya,” is the Russian language equivalent of “Russia Today,” which can’t but cause brand confusion. The presidential decree says nothing about RT channel.
The head of RT, Margarita Simonyan, was quoted by Dozhd TV channel as saying that she learned the news about the reorganization of RIA Novosti over the radio when she drove her car. “If I’d been sitting on a chair at that moment, I’d have fallen down from it,” she said.
A famous pro-Kremlin TV personality, Maxim Shevchenko, described the situation as a long-awaited crackdown on RIA Novosti. “A strategic nest of anti-Russian forces has been crushed – a clever move,” he tweeted.
Other industry experts are less enthusiastic. “It’s almost impossible to predict what the Kremlin may do these days but I think it’s quite clear what it’s going for with a move like that,” says Vladimir Sukhoi, a veteran journalist and professor at Russia’s leading university for international relations, MGIMO.
Sukhoi links the Kremlin’s unexpected move to the recent developments in Ukraine, where hundreds of thousands of people took to the central squares of its cities to protest a U-turn in its foreign policy that President Yanukovich took by suspending a EU association deal in favor of closer ties with Putin.
“The situation in Ukraine showed that Russia is lacking in credit and respect abroad and that many would like to go on without us, so the Kremlin decided to set up a big international holding that would work to tell the world how good Russia is,” Sukhoi says.
Yet Sukhoi doesn’t believe the target will be met with a figure like Kiselyov at the head of the new agency. “The reasoning behind the appointment of Dmitry Kiselyov is clear – the appointee must be loyal to the Kremlin, and Dmitry Kiselyov is exactly the right person. Other factors are not taken into account,” Sukhoi added.
Political analyst Georgy Bovt agrees. "To improve Russia’s image, the government needs to improve the economic situation," he said. "If the economy grew at 5-7 percent a year, Russia’s image would improve automatically. But this isn’t happening. As long as there’s little if any actual progress in the economy, PR efforts will be of no avail.”