Putin dissolves state news agency, tightens grip on Russian media

(FILES) - Picture taken on June 1, 2012 shows German President Joachim Gauck (R) shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Bellevue presidential Palace in Berlin. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE

MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin tightened his control over Russia's media on Monday by dissolving the main state news agency and replacing it with an organisation intended to promote Moscow's image abroad.

The move to abolish RIA Novosti and create a news agency to be known as "Rossiya Segodnya" (Russia Today) is the second such action in two weeks asserting Putin's authority after the ebbing of protests against his rule. 

Independent political analyst Pavel Salin said the move was probably a result of a turf war at the Kremlin and a victory for the hawks as it also sidelines the current RIA Novosti head, Svetlana Mironyuk, who is seen as more liberally-minded.

"I expect a sharp ideological turn now towards much more hawkish reporting under the even closer eye of the Kremlin and directed at the West," Salin said.

Most Russian media outlets are already loyal to Putin, and opponents get little air time, but the shake-up underlined their importance to Putin keeping power and the Kremlin's concern about the president's ratings and image.

"The main focus of ... Rossiya Segodnya is to highlight abroad the state policy and public life of the Russian Federation," said a decree signed by Putin.

RIA Novosti traces its roots to 1941 when the Soviet Information Bureau was established by communist rulers.

It then evolved into the APN news agency in the 1960s, which gave a very strictly controlled account of Soviet foreign and domestic policy as well as cultural affairs tailored for Western readers. Change came under Mironyuk, when it became involved in 'real time' news often with a critical slant.

More recently, RIA Novosti was named the host news agency for the 2014 Winter Olympics, which Russia will hold in its Black Sea resort of Sochi in February and which the Kremlin also wants to use to boost its image abroad. 

The change in due to take effect only in three months and should not affect the Games.

The head of the new agency to be built from the ashes of RIA Novosti is a conservative news anchor, Dmitry Kiselyov, who has proved a loyal Putin supporter as a television presenter, at times making provocative remarks.

He caused outrage in 2010 by saying homosexuals should be banned from donating blood or sperm and last year said they should also be banned from donating organs for transplants.

"Restoring a fair attitude towards Russia as an important country in the world and one with good intentions - that is the mission of the new structure that I will head," he told the state TV broadcaster Rossiya 24. 

Sergei Ivanov, the head of the presidential administration, told reporters that the changes were intended to save money and improve the state media. 

RIA said in an English-language article about Putin's step: "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."

Putin's decree appeared to have little effect on the two other major Russian news agencies, state-run Itar-Tass and private Interfax; but it could benefit both by making RIA's replacement less of a competitor domestically. 

Itar-Tass is the successor of the Soviet official Tass agency, while Interfax has more leeway as a private agency.

A prominent member of parliament, Alexei Mitrofanov, described Kiselyov as a "powerful propagandist".

"The state is spending money. It wants no subtle, balanced reverberation of interests," he said. "If a corporation has its PR unit, it works for the corporation." 

In his third term, after weathering protests led by urban liberals, 61-year-old Putin has often appealed to conservatives and championed the Russian Orthodox Church as a moral guide for society.

Putin, who began his third term at the Kremlin in May 2012, has been Russia's dominant leader since he was first elected president in 2000. The opposition staged big street protests against him for several months from December 2011, following a parliamentary election they said was rigged.

They have faded since but Putin's popularity ratings, though unrivalled, have declined from their peak from 2000 until 2008.

The Kremlin extended its grip over radio and television broadcasting on Nov. 26 when the media arm of state-controlled Gazprom bought mining tycoon Vladimir Potanin's Profmedia. 

Through the deal, the ex-Soviet gas ministry - now Russia's largest firm by revenue - will add TV and radio stations, cinemas and film production and distribution assets to a sprawling portfolio built up around commercial channel NTV. 

The Kremlin already funds an English-language TV channel called RT which was initially known as Russia Today.





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