Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday dissolved a state-run news service that sought to provide balanced coverage of Russian politics, including interviews with opposition figures, and ordered the creation of an agency to be led by a firebrand broadcaster known for on-air attacks against the “decadent” West.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny said Mr. Putin had created an “enormous state propaganda agency with a multimillion budget.”
The new state news agency will be known as Russia Today and will cover “Russian state politics and public life for foreign audiences,” according to Mr. Putin’s decree. The agency shares its name with a state-funded English-language TV channel widely seen as the Kremlin’s mouthpiece, but no merger is expected.
The Russia Today news agency is to be headed by Dmitry Kiselyov, a state television anchor man and media manager. Earlier this month, Mr. Kiselyov claimed pro-European demonstrations in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine were Polish-Swedish “revenge” for a battle their combined forces lost to Russia in 1709.
He has also called for, on-air, gay people’s hearts to be burned rather than used in transplants.
“They should be buried in the ground or burned as unsuitable for the continuation of life,” Mr. Kiselyov said.
He also has been a vocal supporter of a law that bans American families from adopting Russian children. In other comments this fall, he likened the West’s sanctions on Syria to those of Nazi Germany ahead of World War II.
“There is no place for disengaged journalism,” Mr. Kiselyov said earlier this year. “We have to create values.”
Nationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky said Mr. Putin’s decree will create “a powerful center for propaganda.”
To make way for the new agency, Mr. Putin ordered the “liquidation” of the state-run news agency, RIA Novosti, which had gained measured praise for a reporting style that was objective by the standards of Russian state media. Its legal news department has been credited in Russia with drawing attention to the politically based court trials of Mr. Putin’s opponents.
“RIA Novosti did some quality work under fairly tough conditions, and sometimes it did some really good deeds,” noted Yury Saprykin, a well-known Moscow-based journalist and editor.
RIA Novosti’s English-language news service, whose columnists were often openly critical of Mr. Putin’s policies, had gained respect among international media organizations in recent years. Its coverage of the anti-Putin protests in 2011 and 2012 that rocked Moscow including in-depth interviews with protest figures is rumored to have angered high-level Putin supporters.
The agency also owned both the Russian- and English-language Moscow News newspapers, which also ran articles deeply critical of Mr. Putin’s policies. It remains unclear what will happen to both papers under the new management.
In an English-language article Monday, RIA Novosti said the decision to close its operations appeared to indicate “a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector.”
There had been little indication that the agency’s days were numbered. Founded in 1941 in the aftermath of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, RIA Novosti recently was named Russia’s host media outlet for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
The Voice of Russia radio station was also closed as part of the shake-up. The station largely followed the Kremlin’s line, however, and is widely considered to have been collateral damage in Mr. Putin’s restructuring of Russian media.
“A decision has been taken to abandon news entirely and concentrate solely on propaganda,” said well-known media professional and opposition blogger Oleg Kozyrev.