Of all the state-owned media outlets in Russia, RIA Novosti stood largely alone in its willingness to challenge the Kremlin. I use the past-tense there because, as of today, the well-known and relatively well-respected news wire is no longer. In a surprise move even by Russian standards, Vladimir Putin announced this morning that the government is shuttering RIA Novosti and replacing it with a new state-run outlet that will serve largely as a PR firm for the government—or, in Putin's own words, "to highlight abroad the state policy and public life of the Russian Federation."
The Kremlin is framing the media reorganization—which will also shutter Voice of Russia radio—as an effort to cut costs and make "more rational use of public money." But as RIA Novosti, reporting on its own demise, more accurately put it: the changes "appear to point toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector." As a state-run media outlet, RIA Novosti still had to tread carefully when covering the government that paid its bills but it nonetheless "made the greatest attempt to produce balanced coverage in recent years," according to BBC Moscow correspondent Daniel Sandford.
The move appears to have come out of nowhere. RIA Novosti is (or, I suppose was) an official sponsor of the Sochi Winter Olympics, and there was no public debate or even hint that the move was coming before today's official decree. Much of its staff was apparently unaware they'd be out of a job until the news was published on a government website.
"Rossiya Segodnya" translates to "Russia Today," the original name of the highly questionable Kremlin-funded, English-language television station since rebranded as RT. The network is known for what the New York Times calls its "jaundiced view of the failings of the United States and other Western countries." (Putin made no mention of the English-language network in today's announcement.)
In case there weren't enough red flags already, Putin named Dmitry Kiselyov as the head of the new media outlet. (The new agency’s directors will be directly appointed by the president's office.) For those unfamiliar with Kiselyov, he's made a career as a pro-Putin propagandist who sees foreign conspiracies against Moscow almost anywhere he looks. His most infamous comments, however, were made last year about gays and lesbians. "I think it is too little to fine gays for homosexual propaganda," Kiselyov said during one of his TV appearances. "They should be forbidden from donating blood, sperm. And in the case of an automobile accident, their hearts should be buried in the ground or burned."