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Putin stokes controversy with news agency shake-up

Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, on October 10, 2013
Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, on October 10, 2013

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday unleashed a wave of controversy by dissolving the renowned state news agency RIA Novosti and naming a news anchorman notorious for his anti-gay views to head a revamped media group.

Putin signed a decree dissolving Russia's biggest news agency, ordering the creation in its place of a new media conglomerate.

The new company Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) will focus on "coverage abroad of Russian state policy and public life", the document published on the Kremlin website said.

It explained the measure to create the vast holding with multilingual services as a way of "raising efficiency of state media resources".

The move appears as a push by the Kremlin to consolidate state media resources at a time of increasing online criticism of Putin's 13 years of rule, and to take a pro-active approach in shaping Russia's image abroad.

Sergei Ivanov, Putin's chief of staff, said the move will not only make state-owned media use budget funds "more rationally" but also transmit the Kremlin's political message abroad more effectively.

"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," he told Russian agencies.

Putin named Dmitry Kiselyov, a controversial figure often accused of being a propaganda mouthpiece and known for openly anti-gay, anti-American, and anti-opposition views, as the head of Russia Today.

Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny speaks in a court room in the northern city of Kirov, on October 16, 2013
Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny speaks in a court room in the northern city of Kirov, on October 16, 2013

"When this news first appeared, everyone thought it was a joke," Russian protest leader and widely-followed blogger Alexei Navalny wrote on his Live Journal page. "But no."

Kiselyov is the deputy head of Russia's state-run federal television company but is best known to the public for the weekly news round-up show on the Rossiya channel that he presents every Sunday which is marked by venomous attacks on the opposition.

The round-faced anchor, who appears on a plethora of TV shows and radio programmes, is most famous for saying in a talk show once that gays should be banned from donating blood, and their hearts, in case of a deadly car accident, "buried or burned as unfit for continuing somebody else's life".

Once he said that Navalny's campaign for the post of Moscow mayor in September was similar to that of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in Germany.

His coverage of recent popular pro-Europe protests in Kiev has also enraged Ukrainians. On Sunday evening, a protester disrupted a Rossiya reporter doing a live broadcast by presenting Kiselyov with a mock Oscar trophy "for the nonsense and lies".

Kiselyov said Monday on the Rossiya 24 channel that his mission will be "reestablishing fair attitudes toward Russia as an important world country with good intentions".

RIA Novosti has in recent years expanded rapidly, adding a sports wire and an economy wire to its services. The news apparently came as a shock to its staff with one employee, who asked not to be named, saying they found out from the Kremlin's website.

No explanation was issued to the staff, with an internal email merely warning that a "liquidation committee" will be formed and asking that everyone "remains calm".

The agency is one of the biggest in the world and is also an official sponsor of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi next February.

Its court wire RAPSI was known for its detailed live reporting from Russia's most high-profile trials, such as ones against Navalny, the punk band Pussy Riot, and the attackers of the Bolshoi ballet's artistic director.