An insider describes the effects of the Kremlin’s lightning strike on one of Russia’s most respected news organizations.by Alexei Gornin 16 December 2013
The announcement came as a complete surprise. The liquidation of RIA Novosti was not foreshadowed by leaks and rumors, as so often in Russian politics, so most of us heard of it from Twitter or Facebook. I had the feeling that the editor in chief herself learned of it from the media.
Agency staffers kept re-reading the text of the decree, thinking that there must be some bureaucratic mistake. But there was no mistake: RIA Novosti, the third largest online media organization in Russia, no longer existed.
The buzz on the social networks had been that the Kremlin was unhappy with the agency’s moderately liberal tone, but people thought any real decision on its future would be taken after the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, nearer to the summer.
Another reason for surprise was the naming of well-known TV presenter Dmitri Kiselyov to head Russia Today. Kiselyov has come under heavy criticism from liberals for his ultra-conservative remarks, some of which have turned into sad memes in Russia. For example, that gays should be banned from donating sperm or blood, “and if they are killed in a car accident, their hearts should be burned and buried as worthless for saving somebody’s life.”
Speaking of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Kiselyov said he was tempted to liken him to Hitler and called him a “buffoon.” He recently suggested that Sweden, Poland, and Lithuania were fomenting the mass protests in Ukraine as a form of revenge for centuries-old military defeats.
The idea of having a boss like this shocked some of those at RIA who hold liberal and anti-homophobic views.
At first, no one could believe what had happened. People made jokes about going on unemployment, dissected the government’s strange decision, and waited for a word from the editor in chief, Svetlana Mironyuk.
On Monday evening Mironyuk gathered some 300 RIA managers in the large hall of RIA’s international press center. She explained that the decision had been unexpected for her, thanked everyone, and apologized for not having been able to protect the staff and the agency. Holding back tears, she said she was very sad that the history of RIA Novosti had come to an end on her watch.
New chief editor Kiselyov began work on Wednesday. The next day he visited the two biggest operations in the RIA Novosti group – the Prime business news agency and the main RIA newsroom – and assured us that all the group’s operations and staff would be retained. He asked for questions and, when no one mentioned his public image, answered the unspoken question nonetheless. The way he comes across on TV is a “different story,” as any show has to provoke controversy to penetrate through the screen and touch viewers, he said.
The agency’s history began in 1941, when the Soviet Information Bureau (Sovinformburo) was created to distribute news about the Great Patriotic War. In 1961, at the height of the Khrushchev thaw, the bureau was renamed Novosti Press Agency, then in the early 1990s it became RIA Novosti.
Traditionally the agency’s main mission was to distribute news to foreign countries and promote the Soviet way of life. As new media companies emerged and sought markets after the Soviet Union’s collapse, RIA struggled to find a niche, and by the 2000s it made a pitiful sight, deprived of technology, qualified staff, and ambition.
Mironyuk oversaw a radical staff turnover and finally dragged RIA into the multimedia age. She also converted the 1980 Summer Olympics press center into the agency’s new headquarters. People used to say that the press center with its warren of narrow corridors and tiny rooms was designed by a Scandinavian architect whose only previous experience was as a designer of prisons. Renovation made it into a modern newsroom with modern hardware.
Over the next 10 years Mironyuk built up a media organization that became a trendsetter in Russia with its use of infographics, citizen journalism, and multimedia and a respected source of information in Europe and America. RIA employs 2,300 staff, 850 of those in news production, including 180 based abroad.
The agency was involved in social and educational projects as well, and in recent years began building a network of regional press centers across Russia. It was an impressive progression from Soviet-style propaganda machine to innovative media organization.
TALKING MONEY, THINKING POLITICS
The Kremlin rarely offers reasons for its decisions and when it does, it never gives a full picture of what is happening. Presidential chief of staff Sergei Ivanov tied the closure of RIA Novosti to the need for a more rational use of state funds allocated to information resources. The Kremlin has been cutting the agency’s funding for several years. Its budget for 2013 was cut 7 percent from last year to 2.7 billion rubles ($82 million), and was expected to fall still further in 2014.
Many Kremlin-watchers aren’t buying that explanation. There is a consensus that the main motivation for the elimination of RIA Novosti was its too-liberal editorial position. When there were mass opposition protests in Moscow after national elections in 2011 and 2012, the government-run RIA Novosti became one of the most complete sources of information, remaining equidistant from both pro-government forces and the opposition. Political experts opined that the Kremlin never forgave Mironyuk for covering the protests honestly. On this theory the presidential decree can be explained as step to get the agency’s audience under control before the Sochi Olympics and on the back of the mass protests in Kyiv.
In some form, RIA is likely to remain a strong competitor on the Russian media scene. A week after the decree, it is hard to make any predictions, and none of the parties knows yet how the new media group will be configured or how the achievements of RIA will be preserved. A liquidation committee made up of government officials and agency staffers, headed by Kiselyov, has been set up to oversee the transition to Russia Today. The committee will also take over the operational management of RIA.
There is no doubt that RIA Novosti will fulfill its obligations as the host news agency of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games now less than two months away.
Most likely the website will stay alive under the RIA Novosti name, as will most of the group’s projects. The RIA holding company operates the business news agency Prime, a sports news agency, the Russian Legal Information Agency (RAPSI), and the Russian and English editions of The Moscow News as well as a ratings agency. RIA Novosti was also involved in the startup of Russia Today television, now called RT, which will now be subsumed into the new Russia Today group.
Perhaps, as Kiselyov promised, most employees will simply sign new contracts with Russia Today. But it is certain that not all the current staff will join the new group. Layoffs are possible, but are not likely to affect many employees. Some may decide not to perform the functions outlined in the Kremlin decree under such a propagandist as Kiselyov.