Vladimir Putin has dissolved state-run news agency RIA Novosti, ordering its assets to be handed over to a new international news service run by one of Russia’s most conservative TV pundits.
Dmitry Kiselyov, a TV host famous for lambasting gays and comparing supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to followers of Hitler, will be the head of the new Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) service, which will aim to better publicise Russia’s views, the Kremlin said.
The shake-up is the latest example of the Russian state tightening its grip on local media. In November, Gazprom’s media arm acquired Profmedia from billionaire Vladimir Potanin, giving the state energy group access to a collection of high-profile radio, TV, print and online outlets. The deal came just weeks after Gazprom Media hired Mikhail Lesin, a former Kremlin adviser, to run the group.
Sergei Ivanov, head of the presidential administration, said the Kremlin had decided to shut down RIA Novosti because of concerns about the group’s efficiency at managing its budget and effectiveness in spreading the Russian state’s message.
“Russia is pursuing an independent policy and firmly protecting its national interests. It is not too easy to explain this to the world, but it can and should be done,” Mr Ivanov told journalists.
The Kremlin did not say what relationship Rossiya Segodnya would have to international English-language TV channel RT, originally called Russia Today. But Tatiana Stanovaya, an analyst at the Russian Centre for Political Technologies, suggested the overhaul could lead to a new state media giant encompassing Rossiya Segodnya and RT, as well as newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta and the All Russia State Television and Broadcasting Company, which operates most of the state-owned TV and radio channels.
Mr Kiselyov comes from the main state broadcaster Channel One, where he has fiercely defended key Kremlin policy points on his weekly Sunday talk show, becoming increasingly controversial.
On an episode of his show earlier this month, Mr Kiselyov declared that the recent pro-EU demonstrations in Kiev had been a scheme organised by Sweden, Poland and Lithuania, which he claimed were still smarting from Russia’s victory at the Battle of Poltava in 1709.
In an episode this summer, Mr Kiselyov said homosexuals should be banned from donating sperm or blood and that when they died their hearts should be “buried in the ground or burnt” rather than used for transplants. This September, he compared Mr Navalny’s Moscow mayoral campaign to the campaigns run by Hitler and Goebbels in Germany under the Third Reich.
Igor Yakovenko, former secretary of Russia’s journalists union, said the RIA Novosti move was probably spurred by international public opinion siding against Russia in cases such as its five-day war with Georgia in 2008 and the current protests in Ukraine.
“Our constant failures in foreign policy have traditionally been explained by us losing the information war . . . There are always conversations [in the government] that if we strengthen our international propaganda, everyone will understand us and join our side,” Mr Yakovenko told Russian daily Kommersant.
Mr Ivanov said the state would decrease its overall spending on media outlets through Rossiya Segodnya’s creation, although it was not immediately clear whether there would be job cuts.
While RIA Novosti, which occupies a fortresslike structure in central Moscow, was never free from state influence, independent Moscow journalists voiced concern that its successor would lose objective news reporting altogether and become a mouthpiece for the Kremlin.
“Under tough conditions, RIA did many things of high quality and sometimes even good deeds,” said Yuri Saprykhin, editor of Russia news outlet Rambler and magazine Afisha. “These things will now be impossible and no one will be better off.”