Russian State News Agency Gets a Loyalist Upgrade

Vladimir Putin upgrades his media support with a reshuffling that favors Kremlin loyalists. Image mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Vladimir Putin upgrades his media support with a reshuffling that favors Kremlin loyalists. Image mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

One of Russia's largest and best known news agencies, RIA Novosti, won't survive the winter. On Monday, December 9, 2013, employees of the state-owned international news agency awoke to discover a new presidential order “liquidating” their organization. Stranger still, this news came as a shock not only to staff on the news desks and to middle management, but to the agency's director, Svetlana Mironyuk. Footage emerged [ru] online of Mironyuk explaining the unexpected news to her coworkers. Visibly shaken, at one point Mironyuk appears to fight back tears as she thanks her employees for their work over the years. 

The government plans to reorganize RIA Novosti as “Rossiya Segodnya.” Though Rossiya Segodnya translates to “Russia Today,” the organization will remain separate from RT, Russia's English language television station, which originally bore that name. Putin's chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, explained that “Russia pursues an independent policy and robustly defends its national interests. It's not easy to explain that to the world, but we can and must do this.” 

News of the “reorganization” of a state media company was more than enough to make liberals cry foul of a Kremlin takeover. The announcement that Rossiya Segodnya would be headed by Dmitri Kiselyov, an enthusiastically pro-Kremlin news broadcaster with a penchant for anti-Western conspiracy theories, seemed to confirm their worst fears. Kiselyov most recently made headlines in the West when he claimed that Swedish liberalism has led to a normalization of sexual intercourse among the Nordic nation's nine-year-olds. Kiselyov has also attracted the ire of Ukraine's ongoing “Euromaidan” protest movement for what was seen as his bias in favor of Ukraine's government. А reporter from his “Rossiya 1″ television station was recently presented with an “Oscar” live on Russian television [ru]. The award-giver explained, “For your channel and for Dmitri Kiselyov. For his lies and nonsense.”

Both supporters and opponents of RIA Novosti's liquidation seem to view the agency's end as a way of curbing its increasing criticism of the government. As Russian nationalist Mikhail Golovanov [ru] prosaically explained [ru] to his friend, prominent lobbyist Yevgeny Minchenko, on Facebook:

…такие вот непростительные вещи: “Скандал идеологическими «закладками», размещаемыми редакторами РИА в англоязычных текстах, ориентированных на западную аудиторию. Так фраза «The case is widely viewed as a political vendetta by Russia's powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin» («…широко рассматривается как политическая вендетта Владимира Путина»), была интегрирована во все статьи с упоминанием дела Ходорковского. В русскоязычных версиях текстов фраза отсутствовала”.

…there were a few unforgivable things: [causing] scandals through ideological “bookmarks,” placed by RIA's editors in English language texts aimed at a Western audience. The phrase “The case is widely viewed as a political vendetta by Russia's powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin”… was integrated into all articles mentioning the Khodorkovsky affair. In the Russian versions, this phrase was absent.

Others were more alarmed by developments. In a blog post [ru] for the liberal Ekho Moskvy, Mikhail Solomatin saw the liquidation of RIA Novosti as signifying a new relationship between the media and the state.

Закрытие РИА “Новости” и передача нового агентства в руки телеведущего Дмитрия Киселева – показательное событие для нового государственного курса, согласно которому государственные СМИ должны обслуживать исключительно интересы правящей элиты без какой-либо оглядки на объективизм. Если прежде для государственных СМИ, во всяком случае для информагентств, достаточно было сохранять лояльность государству, то теперь у них вовсе отнимают функцию информирования, а велят заниматься пропагандой и только ей.

The closure of RIA Novosti and placing of the new agency in the hands of the TV host Dmitri Kiselyov is a telling event for the state's new direction, in accordance with which state media must exclusively serve the interests of the ruling elite without any view to objectivity. If before it was sufficient for state media, оr in any event for a news agency, to maintain loyalty to the state, then now the information function has been taken away and they're to occupy themselves solely with propaganda.

Not everyone was so sad to see RIA Novosti go. Yevgeniya Albats, a prominent liberal journalist and radio host on Ekho Moskvy, had a more droll appraisal [ru] of the situation on her Facebook.

РИА – все-таки это поразительная история. Директор Агенства, в котором работают тысячи человек и на которое гос-во за 10 лет потратило 1 млрд рублей , из СМИ узнает, что компания ликвидирована. Это зачем так?

RIA is an amazing story all the same. The director of an agency, where thousands of people work and where the government has spent one billion rubles in the last 10 years, discovers from the media that [her] company has been liquidated. And why is that?

One comment pointed out that Albats had made a slight error. The government had in fact spent one billion dollars on RIA Novosti and not one billion rubles. Albats’ criticism of Mironyuk paled in comparison to that of former Duma Deputy and left-wing activist Darya Mitina, who was appalled that Kiselyov had been put in charge of Rossiya Segodnya but conceded [ru] certain failings in RIA's work:

РИА в последние годы было огромным, неповоротливым, растерявшим последние остатки профессионализма, крайне неэффективным баблососущим механизмом со странным руководством во главе.

RIA in recent years was a massive, immovable, extremely inefficient, cash-sucking machine, bereft of the last vestiges of professionalism and with a bizarre leadership at its head.

The exact form the new “Rossiya Segodnya” will take is still unclear. Russia's economic forecast is no longer as sunny as it was a few years ago, when Russia was widely seen as more or less having weathered the Global Financial Crisis. Just one day after the Kremlin announced liquidation, the IMF downgraded Russia's growth projections for 2014. The Kremlin was probably never thrilled about financing a critical state news service when it was swimming in hydrocarbon revenues. With money tight and dissent increasingly suspicious, even a staunch loyalist like Kiselyov may end up running a much smaller organization than Mironyuk did.

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