Russia Today, Russia Segodnya

December 9, 2013
Truth specialist Dmitry Kiselev (in the president’s opinion). Photo by ITAR-TASS

RIA Novosti is, or perhaps “was,” a state-owned news source that was still regarded as fairly balanced and objective. Its articles, in English and Russian, were typically lacking the kind of pro-Kremlin spin often found in, say, Izvestia. Though some editorials were perhaps more clearly in this line (like the sensational article about the Washington shutdown), there was a clear line between news and editorial, a line that is blurred, or missing all together, in much of the state-owned outlets.

Today, the headline of the day is that RIA Novosti will have its name changed to “Russia Today” (Russia Segodnya) and its award-winning editor, Svetlana Mironyuk, will be replaced by Dmitry Kiselev, a well-known pro-Kremlin editorialist who has been accused of homophobia. Voice of Russia wrotethat Kiselyov’s “mission as the new chief is just to restore a fair attitude to Russia in every country of the world.”

The pro-Kremlin radio outlet “Voice of Russia” will also be part of Russia Segodnya. The official reason for the shakeup is that this is a cost-cutting measure, however RIA Novosti’s own article on the move framed things differently, calling the move “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 following was published today in the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta — Ed.

The fleeting questions of the day – “Why did they remove/dismantle/reform the RIA Novosti agency” – are not so important. A pretext can always be found. Even “major political mistakes.” The more subtle thing is to figure out the fundamental reasons.

Arguments regarding the excessively high budget of RIA Novosti and the improvement and modernization of the agency’s work, coming from the mouth of Sergei Ivanov, head of the presidential administration, sound awkward. He pronounced some words about how one must “speak the truth, make it accessible to the maximum number of people, and to use modern language and the most advanced technology for this.”

So it turns out that all this time, RIA Novosti, under the editor-in-chief Svetlana Mironyuk, was lying to the public, but with the tele-killer Dmitry Kiselev, as blunt in his style as a railroad tie, it will finally speak the truth.

On the whole, RIA Novosti isn’t the best tool for manipulating public opinion, because news either is or isn’t, it is either won or lost. As for modern methods of work, RIA had become practically the most high-tech outlet in the news space of Russia, thanks to investment in so-called convergence journalism which united various genres and multimedia methods of getting information under one roof. As for the abundant funding of the agency, it was the government that provided this money – exactly as much as it wanted to give. It was within its power to reduce the financing of the former APN [Soviet-era Novosti Press Agency], and not reform its structure under the lackluster title “Russia Segodnya” [Russia Today]. (Not to mention the fact that this “title” is borrowed from the television channel Russia Today broadcasting abroad.)

Perhaps it is believed that RIA insufficiently propagandized the bright image of Russia abroad. In fact, the linking of Voice of Russia to Russia Segodnya is in favor of such a version of the story. But foreign propaganda without a subject of propagandizing cannot be effective by definition. All the more because it is a question of a news agency. At one time I myself labored in middle management at RIA Novosti; it’s not true there was no demand for the materials produced by the agency for export. Asian colleagues bought them and, for example, regional press in the USA, especially if it was about all kinds of military hardware – it’s just that they had clear genre and market limitations. Even so, the agency worked a) with news and b) for the domestic audience. And in that capacity, without a doubt, it was successful, and in fact not by having pretensions of having some sort of opposition quality, but simply by the skillful professional organization of its work.

It seems that in this segment, the interest of the state should in fact consist of dry professionalism. But you see, some people felt the damp emotion, tone of pathos and concrete agitprop were missing. It is pointless to dig into the nuances of mutual relations among major officials and major executives of state media. There aren’t enough candles to hold over colleagues deciding the fate of the world and packing the brains of the domestic Russian audience. The break-up of RIA Novosti – so demonstratively and abruptly – is a clear signal: we will not tolerate any democracy in the news space; we will not accommodate even professionalism. In this political situation, when the state sees in society, that is, in the consumer of information, either an enemy or a manipulated entity, only state propaganda is possible in the most harsh vein, in the manner of television. To speak in the language of agitprop, these are “links in one chain”; it is one step from repressive laws to jailing of some people in the Bolotnaya case [of street demonstrators], to Pussy Riot and so on up to prophylactic measures in the news space against its unpredictable areas. And check. And mate.

After the illustrative story of pressure on Ukraine and personally [Ukrainian President] Viktor Yanukovych, it became obvious that the Western vector of contemporary Russia has been taken. We ourselves will not go there and we will not let neighbors in. And in that context, yes, the purge of the professional news agency with the symbolic appointment of a prominent figure [Dmitry Kiselev] looks like one more proof of this obvious thinking. To be sure it may not be final proof, but one piece of evidence among many,

In general, it’s like the old joke in the halls of RIA Novosti itself – Rasha tudey, Rasha syudey [a rhyming couplet invoking the phrase tuda-syuda which means “here, there, everywhere”]. The result is the same: the pouring of concrete over the news space.

It is only so that at the top it can seem to them: everything is under control. The maintaining of the illusion costs major government funds. And with the obligatory renunciation of professionalism – it can’t survive next to propaganda.

P.S. On Monday night, Dmitry Kiselev, named the general director of Russia Segodnya, formulated the mission of the organization entrusted to him: the restoration of fair treatment of Russia.