MOSCOW – Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti is to be shut down and replaced by a new media outlet, according to a decree signed by President Vladimir Putin and published on the Kremlin’s website Monday morning.
The new arrangements will see RIA Novosti and the Voice of Russia radio station merged to form a new media organisation, Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today). The aim of the new agency will be to “cover Russian state policy and public life in the Russian Federation”.
Sergei Ivanov, head of the president’s administration, told press the move was to make “more rational use of public money”.
He added: “Russia is following its own policy and firmly defending its national interests. It’s not easy to explain this to the world, but it can and must be done.”
Voice of Russia, the international broadcasting service, was the Russian equivalent of the Voice of America or BBC World Service.
Adding more controversy, Putin announced Russia Today will be led by former Channel One TV personality Dmitry Kiselyov, a news anchor known for his anti-American and anti-gay rhetoric.
In April 2012, Kiselyov said on his show he believed gays should be banned from donating sperm and blood, and that their organs should be burned instead of donated to another person.
Russia Today will be tasked with presenting a Russian perspective on policy and news to the international community, VOA reported. The new agency will apparently be separate from global channel RT, which once operated under the Russia Today brand.
Despite being state-owned, RIA Novosti has earned a reputation for independent and balanced reporting including on sensitive issues such as the anti-government protests that rocked Moscow in 2011 and 2012.
BBC’s Moscow Correspondent Daniel Sanford said on Twitter: “RIA Novosti was an outlier. I guess the Kremlin doesn’t like outliers The staff at RIA Novosti covered all the controversial topics of recent years without the absurd spin put on by state TV.”
Writing about their dissolution on their own website, RIA Novosti said: “The move is the latest in a series of shifts in Russia’s news landscape, which appear to point towards a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector.
Although the new organisation will have the same name as the English-language TV news channel, the two are not connected.
The head of the Russia Today (RT) channel, Margarita Simonyan, told news site Lenta.ru that she only found out about the agency from news reports on Monday morning.
RIA Novosti began life under Josef Stalin in 1941 and has struggled to shake off a Soviet legacy of managerial inertia since the fall of the USSR, but has acquired a reputation as a relatively trustworthy and balanced source of news under Svetlana Mironyuk, the chief editor since 2004, writes the Telegraph.
In contrast to state-owned Federal television channels, which are tightly controlled by the Kremlin and have a reputation for screening hatchet jobs on opposition figures, RIA Novosti appeared to have a licence to operate relatively freely under Ms Mironyuk’s leadership, reporting controversial stories including the 2012 anti-Putin protests in Moscow, and more recently the pro-Europe protests in Ukraine, with little if any bias.
The move is all the more surprising because the state had poured millions into modernising the agency in recent years, and it was one of the main organizers of the Sochi 2014 Olympics.
Employees said they were given no warning of the announcement, and that they were waiting to hear if they would be fired or hired into the new agency.