Executive Known for Anti-Gay Comments to Lead Revamped Russian News Agency
Russian president Vladimir Putin Monday announced sweeping reforms to state-owned broadcasters and news agencies, which will see an executive known for his public anti-homosexual comments take control of a new state news agency.
At the stroke of a pen by presidential decree, Putin scrapped state news agency RIA Novosti and issued orders to establish a new Russian Information Agency that will incorporate Kremlin international satellite television news service Russia Today, old Soviet-era science and education news agency ITAR-TASS, international radio station Voice of Russia and state broadcasting organization VGTRK (All Russia State TV and Radio Broadcasting Company).
Dmitry Kiselev, deputy director VGTRK, has been appointed to head the new agency.
Last August, Kiselev made headlines after he had said on air that homosexuals should be prohibited from donating blood, sperm and, if they died in a traffic accident, their hearts should be "burned" or buried as unsuitable for the prolongation of life. He denied being homophobic.
Putin, who as president has vast powers to issue decrees without consulting parliament, told officials to set up the new agency within a month.
Sergei Ivanov, head of the presidential administration, said the reorganization was designed to reduce costs and improve efficiency of state-owned media.
"Russia pursues an independent policy that firmly protects national interests," he said.
"Explaining that to the world is not easy, but it can be done and should be done. We must speak the truth and make it available to as many people as possible, using the most advanced technology.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said he thought it was a "joke" when he first heard the news.
Writing ironically on his blog, he added that to create a "multibillion dollar budget state propaganda agency" with Kiselev as its head was a good idea.
"State propaganda should have its own face and Kiselev is ideal," Navalny said.
RIA Novosti employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they were surprised to learn about the reorganization Monday morning.
"So far, nothing has changed. It is work as usual," one told The Hollywood Reporter.
Conditions have been challenging at the agency for the past 16 months, following a wave of layoffs last year and more downsizing this year.
A recruitment freeze was introduced that was to last through the end of the Sochi Olympics in February, although the agency was budgeted to spend substantially on covering the games.
In September, English-language newspaper The Moscow News, which the agency publishes, was halved in size and distributed as an insert in local language newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti.
RIA in a report on its own closure said that "the move is the latest in a series of shifts in Russia's news landscape, which appear to point toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector."
The Russian blogosphere ignited on news of the scrapping of the agency, with comments denouncing Kiselev as a Kremlin mouthpiece and dubbing -- in a reference taken from George Orwell's famous novel about an authoritarian state 1984 -- the new company he will head "the ministry of truth."