This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin disbanded the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency. A new agency—Russia Segodnya (Russia Today)—will be taking over its assets with the mission of improving the image of Russia internationally. It will be headed by a hard-line propagandist, TV anchor Dmitri Kiselev, leaving no doubt about the direction of the new agency.
Russia’s image could indeed use an overhaul: A recent Pew Research Center poll found that just 23 percent of respondents globally approved of Russia’s leadership, compared with 43 percent approval for the United States. That said, further tightening the screws on Russian citizens’ access to news is hardly the way to do it.
The Russian media landscape is bleak and already tightly controlled by the government. Only Novaya Gazeta (The New Gazette), Echo of Moscow Radio Station, and Internet-based TV Rain are telling truth to power. The remaining media outlets, particularly the electronic media, hold to the government’s official line, and independent journalists are an endangered species.
As Daniel Kimmage wrote in a report by Freedom House and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians,”
The Kremlin deploys the conceptual vocabulary of the new Russia—national renewal, anti-Western xenophobia, sovereign democracy—through a sophisticated domestic communications strategy that marshals both the traditional state resources and much-expanded control over virtually all mainstream mass media. This one-two punch, coming amid a period of rising prosperity, has had a significant impact on popular opinion, and the Kremlin’s message has resonated with its intended recipients.
Putin is in many ways reverting to true Soviet form. RIA Novosti itself began as a propaganda agency during World War II under the name Soviet Information Bureau—later renamed Novosti (News) Information Agency. It provided “cover” to hundreds of Soviet spies worldwide. The name was changed and its mission broadened under President Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s as part of the opening up of Russia’s mass media. Under Svetlana Mironyuk, its current CEO, the agency had become more professional, less political, and widely admired for its technical prowess. With Russia Today’s launch, whatever wiggle room RIA Novosti had for real news production by journalists, producers, and editors is gone.
From a U.S. perspective, we can expect a further barrage of anti-American broadsides—anti-Americanism being the life-blood of Russian propaganda. As the Russian government sharpens its global message, U.S. government broadcasters have to be ready to step in with fact-based news broadcasting for Russian citizens about our own country’s policy as well as global news events.