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Bad news: what does the closure of RIA Novosti mean for media in Russia?

Bad news: what does the closure of RIA Novosti mean for media in Russia?

Vladimir Putin has ordered the closure of leading state news agency RIA Novosti. As this widely respected bastion of journalistic objectivity falls victim to the Kremlin's agenda, Sergej Sumlenny ponders the future of reporting in Russia

12 December 2013
Text Sergej Sumlenny
Image Jürg Vollmer under a Creative Commons Licence

For many companies or politicians, 70 years of history would mean something. But not, it seems, for Vladimir Putin. With one snap decision, which astounded media-watchers on Monday, the Russian president put an end to one of Russia’s biggest state-owned news agencies, RIA Novosti. It has been disbanded, because of “inefficiency”, officials say. The real reasons, however, has a lot more to do with politics than economics.

The accusation of inefficiency smacks of a pretext. RIA Novosti was founded in 1941, as SovInformBureau, in order to tell the world about the Soviet Union’s struggle against Nazi Germany. The agency built on its successes in World War II and went on to become the leading Soviet newswire for international news; it survived Stalin and other Soviet leaders, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“RIA’s objectivity and professionalism was greatly appreciated by readers”

Over the last ten years, with the support of about $1 billion in governmental funds (in addition to RIA’s own earnings), chief editor Svetlana Mironyuk has managed to make something that is more than just a world-class agency — RIA is both a huge information empire and a rare platform for civilised discussion in Russia’s increasingly polarised media sphere. The agency became a safe haven for many independent journalists. Of course, RIA remained a state-owned media holding and fulfilled its obligations to the government. But its op-ed columns were notably free, and many of its — lavishly funded — non-commercial projects, which were avowedly apolitical, proved useful for thousands of Russians. What will become now of initiatives like Social Navigation, which helped cancer patients with the bureaucracy needed to secure free treatment? With over 60 offices abroad, RIA presented a wide range of information — including points of view critical of the Kremlin. When former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili held a speech at the UN Assembly General and criticised Russia’s policies towards his country, RIA translated and published large parts of his speech. Such objectivity and professionalism was greatly appreciated by readers: in the month of April 2013 over 9 million internet users visited RIA’s website. This made RIA the 11th most popular European news website, even more popular than CNN (13th place, 8.7 million visitors) and Der Spiegel (14th place, 8.2 million visitors).

The offices at RIA Novosti

It sounds counter-intuitive, but it could be this very success that prompted the president to shut down RIA. The most powerful man in Russia is not known to be a friend of independent media or, what is much more important, of successful media. Putin’s presidency began with the demolition of Russia’s biggest and most popular private TV channel NTV. The channel’s owner Vladimir Gusinsky was forced into exile and the channel itself transformed into a stream of high-dosage Kremlin propaganda interspersed with trashy drama series. Independent Russian newspapers were either threatened or bought up by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs. The private media sector was brought to heel. Now, 13 years after he came to power, Putin obviously feels the need to discipline not only private media sources, as before, but also those owned by the state. It’s obviously not enough for Putin to dismiss the comparatively liberal Mironyuk: his problem is not with her, but with the successful structures within RIA. Particularly unpopular with “patriots” was InoSMI, a website which translated western journalism about Russia into Russian — including critical voices — and was visited by more than 100 thousand people a day.

“The most powerful man in Russia is not known to be a friend of independent media or, what is much more important, of successful media”

By disbanding RIA, Putin cancels not only Mironyuk’s contract, but also thousands of jobs. No former journalist can claim they have been fired illegally — because their former employer company does not exist anymore. The new agency created on the ruins of RIA will have no legal obligations to its former personnel and will be free to hire new editors — or not. This is the biggest purge of the Russian media landscape for over a decade.

Svetlana Mironyuk

Some observers have suggested that the change was actually planned for spring 2014, after the culmination of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. RIA Novosti had previously been announced as the main news host of the Sochi games. The agency planned to send 240 journalists to Sochi and to produce up to 50,000 news stories in five languages, as well as something like 15,000 photos. The reason for the Kremlin to pull the plug two months before its highest profile international event (and endanger the whole news coverage for the most expensive Olympic Games ever) could well be fear prompted by the unrest in Ukraine. Looking at the hundred thousands protesting in Kiev against the pro-Russian turn of Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich may very have well panicked the Kremlin into taking rash action.

Even if it has been carried out ahead of schedule, disbanding RIA Novosti still makes a lot of sense within the context of internal politicking. The main reason behind Putin’s decision may well be the on-going struggle within the Russian elite between his “hardliners” and Medvedev’s “liberals”. A weak president, Dmitry Medvedev still managed to give hope to many Russians who wanted to see their country move towards modernisation and freedom. But, for more than a year now, Putin has been trying to reverse Medvedev’s political liberalisation, most visibly through a series of high-profile legal and legislative moves. A dozen protesters who took part in anti-Putin demonstrations in early 2012 are still in jail awaiting their trial and facing several years in a labour camp. State-owned television depicts western countries as a sinful realm of paedophilia and violence against children. The Russian parliament has introduced new laws forbidding the adoption of Russian orphans by foreigners and invented the idea of “homosexual propaganda” — a phenomenon unknown to world science.

“Kiselyov recently proposed that the hearts of homosexuals should be burned or buried separately, as they have never known love”

In his attempt to turn Russia into an conservative state, Putin urgently needs a new powerful media weapon. The agency that will replace RIA, Russia Today, (not to be confused with a state-owned English-speaking TV channel RT, formerly Russia Today) could do this job. Russia Today will be led by hardline anti-western homophobe Dmitry Kiselyov, a TV-host who recently proposed that the hearts of homosexuals should be not be used for transplants but rather burned or buried separately, as they have never known love. Kiselyov was a liberal journalist in the early 1990s but has mutated into one of the most aggressive Kremlin propagandists. When covering the Ukrainian protests earlier this month he compared the EU summit in Vilnius to the Munich agreement in 1938 that granted the Third Reich control of Czechoslovakia, making the EU equivalent to Nazi Germany. Kiselyov added that the German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, who is openly gay, might have been “overheated” by the “heavy bodies” of the Klichko brothers, Ukrainian opposition leaders and former heavyweight boxers, and blamed Westerwelle for promoting “the most important European topic: “homosexuality” in Ukraine. If Ukraine goes to Europe, Kiselev said, Ukrainian kids would suffer from molestation, like they already do in Sweden, where kids, he said, start their sexual life at nine.

On an official tour round RIA yesterday, Kiselyov tried to reassure employees both that their jobs were safe and that his famously bullish TV persona would not set the tone. But a few minutes later he made clear that there will indeed be a brutal purge. He dismissed the notion of objectivity: “Journalistic objectivity is a phantom they want to sell us,” he said. Reporters who claim to be objective “distort the picture and look on our own country as if it were a foreign one. This era of clear distilled journalism is over”. He even implied that independent journalists were traitors: “If you want to promote anti-governmental activity (sabotage), it does not fit with my plans.

Dmitry Kiselyov presenting his show on state television

Two years ago RIA Novosti fired columnist Nikolai Troitsky, who wrote on his blog that he wanted to invent a bomb that selectively kills homosexuals. Now one of homophobia’s most rabid proponents has helped make the whole agency obsolete. It is clear that Kiselyov was chosen not in spite of his homophobia and criticism of western values (aka basic human rights), but mostly because of these qualities. “The demolition of RIA is a long-awaited decision by Putin. He has finally smashed this nest of anti-Russian information. Well done,” Maxim Shevchenko, a Kremlin-loyal TV journalist, tweeted. “It’s a good move. And a very necessary thing,” added Russian culture minister Vladimir Medinsky — hardly surprising considering his belief in grand conspiracies to conceal Russia’s glorious history: not long ago he cut government funding for a film which told the sordid story of Soviet cooperation with Nazi Germany before the war.

In 2013 it is not enough to be only semi-loyal to the Kremlin’s new xenophobic, conservative agenda, like many journalists of state-owned media used to be. An absence of criticism of Putin or his legislation is no longer sufficient evidence of loyalty. The Kremlin wants its journalists to promote its new values, like homophobia and anti-Americanism, in the most aggressive way possible. The new agency Russia Today seems set to be the pioneer of this new Russian propaganda. Kiselyov’s appointment is just another mark of Russia’s new confrontation against western values. Western countries should mark the name of this short, bald man. In the coming years he will be the face of Russian foreign propaganda: shameless, aggressive, extremely xenophobic and without any scruples when it comes to invoking even the most vicious conspiracy theories. The era of “enlightened” Russian propagandists is gone. Who knows if it will ever return.

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