President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin always had a very sly, if transparent, way of creating the illusion that Russia has independent media -- at least until now. Walking a thin line, state-owned or state-backed news services would be allowed to report just enough on the shortcomings of the Russian political system to keep up the appearance of free speech but would never go too far in their criticisms.
But the Kremlin just couldn't take it anymore. With one swift signature the president himself ended the golden days of independent-ish Russian media.
On Monday, Putin, with no notice whatsoever, signed a decree dissolving the state-owned agency RIA Novosti and Voice of Russia radio, which had become known for providing relatively balanced reporting about the country in 14 languages. Novosti, founded in 1941 as a Soviet news agency, and Voice of Russia will be substituted by a new, consolidated agency called Russia Today. It will be separate from another state-backed news organization known as RT.
Putin's chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, said that the move was an effort to control the state's budget, to spend media funds "more rationally." But even the Kremlin left no doubts as to the actual reason for the decision -- the question of who should be controlling the image of Russia abroad. "Russia is following its own policy, firmly defending national interests, this is difficult to explain to the world but one can and must do it," Ivanov said. According to the New York Times, the agency's directors will be designated by Putin's office.
In a sad, sad announcement of their own demise, RIA Novosti managed to capture their strange position in the Russia's media world. Their report was on the one hand accurate and on the other hand unwilling to call Putin's move what it is: an outright crackdown on media freedom. "The move is 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 new agency's overlord will be the news anchor Dmitry Kiselov, who has become well-known for his anti-gay and anti-Europe remarks. Kiselov made a splash last week when he went on a rant during his evening show about the moral decline facing Ukraine should they choose to join the European Union instead of maintaining their partnership with Russia. And while Western news organizations such as the New York Times and the Financial Times dutifully noted an unforgettable moment in Kiselov's rant when he speculated that the EU-Ukraine association agreement was a Polish-Lithuanian-Swedish revenge plot for the 1709 Battle of Poltava, they managed to leave out the best part. Kiselov went on to cite a Swedish children's show that aims to teach the country's youth about their bodily functions as evidence of the decadence which marks European culture, which we at Foreign Policy wrote about last week. That show includes the characters Pee-Pee, Turd, and Nixon the Nose, and it's the evidence cited by Russia's newly crowned media tsar in his rant against the West.
Goodbye Novosti, and welcome to crazy town.
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