Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday signed a decree dissolving state-run news agency RIA Novosti and state-owned Voice of Russia radio, and appointed ultraconservative television anchor Dmitry Kiselyov to head a newly-formed media conglomerate.
The decree, effective immediately, transfers all RIA Novosti property to a new conglomerate called "Rossiya Segodonya," which means "Russia Today." Russia Segodonya will provide "coverage of Russian state policy and public life in the federation," the decree said.
The name of the new conglomerate has caused confusion as there is no indication the new Russia Today will be affiliated with RT, the Kremlin-funded English-language television network formerly know by same name. RT head Margarita Simonyan told Russian news site Lenta.ru on Monday that she was not informed of the changes before the Kremlin issued its decree.
"I heard about it on the radio," Simonyan said, adding that she hoped to be informed by the Kremlin about the relationship between her network, RT, and the new Russia Today.
Sergei Ivanov, Putin's chief of staff, told reporters on Monday that the changes in the state news apparatus would cut costs and make state media more effective.
"Russia has its own independent politics and strongly defends its national interests: it’s difficult to explain this to the world but we can do this, and we must do this,” Ivanov said. "We must tell the truth, make it accessible to the most people possible and use modern language and the best available technologies in doing so."
Ria Novosti was set to be an official sponsor of February's Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The games have been at the center of a controversy concerning Russia's newly passed law banning the promotion of homosexuality to minors. Some activists have called for gay athletes to boycott the games for the country's anti-gay stance.
In an article published on the RIA Novosti website, which is still functioning, the agency called 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 Voice of Russia took a different line in a statement posted to its website, terming the dissolution a "merger."
It is unclear how many staffers will continue on in the new agency. An email sent to RIA Novosti staff said a "liquidation committee" was in the works and urged them to "remain calm." One employee, who asked not to be named, told AFP they found out about the dissolution from a statement on the Kremlin's website.
The controversial Kiselyov, known for espousing anti-gay and anti-American views, will head Russia Today. He most recently served as the deputy head of state-owned Rossiya television channel, where he anchored a show every Sunday featuring vitriolic attacks on opposition politicians.
In an episode of his show that aired in August, Kiselyov said he believed that the organs of homosexuals were not fit for transplants, and should be burned.
Russian media activists on Monday lashed out at the Kremlin over the Internet and expressed their distaste for the ultraconservative Kiselyov.
"When this news first appeared, everyone thought it was a joke," Russian opposition activist and popular blogger Alexei Navalny wrote on his Live Journal page. "But no."
Headquartered in Moscow, RIA Novosti was established as the Soviet Information Bureau in 1941 and has since grown to become one of the world's largest international news agencies, with services in 14 languages.
With wire services