Kremlin spin: Does media overhaul herald new propaganda push?

A government decree restructuring two major state media outlets comes amid Kremlin efforts to hone its PR messaging. The upcoming Sochi Olympics may have something to do with it.

By , Correspondent

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    Cars pass by the Russian RIA Novosti information agency headquarters in Moscow on Monday. The news organization, widely considered Russia's most balanced state outlet, will be folded into a newly restructured state news agency, the Kremlin announced on Monday.
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Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect new comments. 

President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered a sweeping restructuring of state-owned Russian news outlets aimed at foreign audiences, creating a new mega-agency headed by a Kremlin loyalist known for xenophobic views.

Experts disagreed over whether the liquidation of the RIA-Novosti news agency and the Voice of Russia radio service was intended as a money-saving measure, or whether the Kremlin is aiming to sharpen its messaging tools at a time of heightened diplomatic engagement and growing tensions with the West.

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RIA's editor-in-chief, Svetlana Mironyuk, meanwhile, told employees Monday that she and other top managers were taken by surprise by the decree, learning of it only from other media outlets. That suggests the restructuring is something other than a financial decision. 

The Kremlin has honed its public relations efforts over the past decade, creating new foreign language publications and broadcasts to help tell a counter-narrative to news events as portrayed for foreign media. In the US, for example, the Russian government has paid for multi-page inserts into newspapers like the Washington Post, and poured money into promoting its English-language TV channel, Russia Today. The Kremlin also hired the US PR company Ketchum to refine its messaging strategies, reportedly paying the company more than $25 million to further Moscow’s viewpoint. 

The assets of RIA and Voice of Russia will be folded into an agency to be named Rossiya Segodnya, which translates as Russia Today. The TV channel by the same name appears to be untouched by the Kremlin decree, which said the new agency would “provide information on Russian state policy and Russian life and society for audiences abroad."

Russia has enjoyed a higher international profile lately, in part due Mr. Putin's success in persuading President Barack Obama to not attack Syria over chemical weapons use, and its role in promoting an international peace settlement with Iran. Putin personally scored points in the public information war over Syria by penning a trenchant opinion piece for The New York Times, a piece whose publication was facilitated by Ketchum.

With the Sochi Winter Olympic Games under two months away, and Russia's international image riding on their success, the decree may signal the Kremlin has decided to re-focus its vast global media assets and dedicate them more explicitly to serving the state's policy goals.

"This is about channeling Russian influence," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. “Now we will see much more propaganda-style output, which will be aimed at raising Russia's profile and increasing its impact on world affairs.”

Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal, says the liquidation of RIA, which stands for Russia Information Agency, is particularly bad news because, within the spectrum of Russian media, the agency had been notable for trying to maintain objective standards of journalism in both its domestic and international reporting.

"RIA-Novosti was doing a fairly good job, which is one reason I think this is bad news," she says. “The agency was guided first and foremost by professional considerations, and [its Russian-language service] provided a somewhat different voice on Russia's media landscape.”

Another reason for pessimism, Ms. Lipman says, is the appointment of Dmitry Kiselyov to head the new state media juggernaut.

Kiselyov is a controversial TV talk show host who has become notorious for incendiary rhetoric against foreigners and Russian minorities, including highly defamatory comments about gay people, for example.

"Dmitry Kiselyov is a hate-monger. Not just anti-liberal. His role recently has been to incite hatred toward various categories of Russian people and toward the West," Lipman says. "The fact that he's the one chosen to hone Russia's messaging to the West speaks volumes."

In an interview with the Kremlin-owned Rossiya-24 channel Monday, Kiselyov said the main mission of the new Russia Today agency would be to "restore a just and fair attitude toward Russia in every country of the world.”

Rossiya-24, a CNN-type of 24-hour news channel, is also recent creation of the Kremlin.

For Russian language media, two competing news agencies—the small, independent Interfax and the venerable state-owned Itar-TASS—will remain in operation. The decree also says the official government newspaper, Rossisskaya Gazeta, will be reorganized, though it’s unclear whether it will continue publishing.

Dmitry Babich, who has been a commentator for both RIA-Novosti and the Voice of Russia, says the media reorganization is just about saving money.

"One thing I am sure of is that this has nothing to do with politics," he says. "I think this decision was in the logic of economic reality. Economic growth in Russia slowed down and the state has less money. It is meant to reduce expenditures, without taking into account political or media consequences."

But Nikolai Svanidze, a famous TV personality, says the name of the new super-agency, Russia Today, suggests that it will follow in the footsteps of its TV namesake, which has long since abandoned its original mission of informing the global conversation about Russia and now devotes itself primarily to harshly critical coverage of global -- mainly Western -- affairs.

"It looks like the authorities are re-directing the propaganda machine," Mr. Svanidze says.

"There are plenty of problems inside Russia, but it's far more pleasant to produce things for the outside world,” he says. 

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