MOSCOW: In what some see as a new move to limit free speech and secure more control over information, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday dissolved a state news agency dating to the Soviet era and replaced it with a new body aimed at promoting the Kremlin’s positions abroad.
RIA Novosti, created as the Sovinformburo in June 1941, two days after Adolf Hitler’s Nazi army attacked the Soviet Union, was replaced with a new body called Rossiya Segodnya, or Russia Today.
That is the same name given to an English-language television network, called RT for short, that was launched by the Kremlin several years ago, apparently as a trial balloon to explore ways of transmitting the Russian government’s message abroad.
RIA Novosti employed more than 2,300 people and in recent years had earned a reputation, even among Kremlin critics, as the most outspoken and objective state-owned news outlet.
Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, explained the decision to Itar-Tass — another government-run news agency dating to the Soviet era, albeit one that will remain intact.
“It is not simple to explain to the world that Russia is conducting an independent policy and firmly protects its national interests, but it’s doable and should be done,” he said. “We need to tell the truth, make it accessible to a maximal number of people, using for this purpose a modern tongue and the most advanced technologies.”
Some Russian media analysts hailed the move, saying the new organization would better correspond to Putin’s efforts to reassert Russia’s standing as a superpower. But others lashed out at it as another attempt to encroach upon free speech and serve to distort the reality of modern Russia.
“I am afraid what they intend to build is a new giant propaganda ministry,” Pavel Gusev, editor in chief of the liberal daily Moskovsky Komsomolets and chairman of the Moscow Journalist Union, said in an interview. “In place of RIA Novosti and using its solid base and huge potential, they will most likely not as much inform the public of what is going on as explain news in the light outlined by the authorities.”
Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov argued that the new organization will be more suitable to Putin’s vision of Russia.
“We need to clearly show the world that Russia is a great power that can be an ally with the West on some issues but will never be its satellite,” said Markov, vice president of Russia’s Plekhanov University of Economics.
Employees of RIA Novosti were expected to be offered new jobs, most presumably in the new organization.
The new organization, Russia Today, will be led by Dmitry Kiselyov, a highly controversial figure who is anchor of a weekly television political news show, Vesti Nedeli, or News of the Week. He is considered an extremely conservative Putin loyalist who has achieved notoriety in part through his intense animosity toward gay people.
Late last year, he said on prime-time television that legislation that made it a crime to promote homosexuality to minors didn’t go nearly far enough.
“They should be forbidden to donate blood and sperm,” he said. “And their hearts in case of a [fatal] car accident should be buried in the ground or burnt as unsuitable to generate life.”