John Lough
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Pigeons fly by posters showing pictures of China's President Xi Jinping (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) set by activists of the international non-governmental organization 'Reporters sans Frontieres' (Reporters without borders) in Paris, 3 MPigeons fly by posters showing pictures of China's President Xi Jinping (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) set by activists of the international non-governmental organization 'Reporters sans Frontieres' (Reporters without borders) in Paris, 3 May, 2013. Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images.

The closure of Russia’s state-owned news agency, RIA Novosti, and the creation of a new organization, Russia Today, is ostensibly a move to promote Russia’s image abroad more effectively. At the same time, it will serve the purpose of consolidating public opinion at home around the government’s anti-Western agenda.

The Kremlin was unhappy with the agency’s ‘liberal’ coverage, including its reporting of the Bolotnaya events of May 2012 when protestors clashed with security forces during an anti-Putin protest.

There may also have been a personal factor in the decision. Editor-in-chief Svetlana Mironyuk, who has headed RIA Novosti since 2003, is considered to be close to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and has been at loggerheads with some of Putin’s team.

Widely regarded as a capable and effective manager, Mironyuk built a strong reputation for the agency, based on the quality of its reporting at home and abroad. RIA Novosti is the most quoted news agency in Russia and the second most quoted Russian agency abroad. As the official news agency for the Sochi Winter Olympics, it (and Mironyuk) looked to be safe until February at least.

There was also the issue, though hardly new, of why Russia needed two state news agencies – ITAR-TASS and RIA Novosti – that often seemed to be in direct competition.

Projecting the Kremlin’s vision

Putin’s decree describes the role of the new Russia Today as ‘coverage abroad of state policy of the Russian Federation and public life in the Russian Federation’. This has a strong whiff of the Soviet past, as do other descriptions of the organization’s functions. (Confusingly, the new agency bears the same name as the original Russia Today television news channel now known as RT).

Asked about its role, Sergey Ivanov, the head of the presidential administration, said that Russia was ‘pursuing an independent policy, firmly protecting its national interests and explaining this to the world is not easy, but it can and must be done’.

The timing of the announcement coincides with a very fragile political situation in Ukraine that has come about largely because of what protestors perceive as heavy-handed Russian pressure to prevent the Westernization of Ukraine through integration with the European Union.

After an unprecedented PR success that followed its intervention to secure chemical weapons in Syria, Russia finds itself cast again by the international media in the more familiar role of regional bully, imposing harsh conditions on its neighbours as part of a broader effort to shore up its influence in the region and more widely.

The appointment of an ardent Kremlin propagandist, Dmitri Kiselev, to head the Russia Today agency, does not suggest that the regime is about to use subtle tactics to reinforce its ‘soft power’ abroad. For example, he is on record as saying that gays who propagandize to young people should not be allowed to be blood or sperm donors. Kiselev has described his new role as ‘restoring a fair attitude towards Russia as an important country in the world with good intentions’.

While Russia Today’s remit is to inform foreign audiences it will also serve an important internal function for the Kremlin. The Putin system seeks legitimacy at home by defining Russia as a country that is not part of the West and, increasingly, by presenting Western values, practices and traditions as non-Russian and harmful to the country’s development. The new agency is likely to mirror the work of RT by presenting views designed to pick out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the West and to try to show Russian political and economic developments based on an alternative reality.

Russia’s leaders regularly express frustration at the negative depiction of Russia in foreign media but they do precious little to address the real source of the problem. There is a limit to how much Russia’s PR machine can soften, disguise or distort bad news. In today’s world of global media, governments that genuinely care about their reputation have to think about the reputational consequences of their actions and be prepared to deal with them in real time.

With Russia’s reputation now suffering further damage as foreign media focus on what they see as the Kremlin’s latest effort to tighten its control over Russia’s society, it is clear that its leaders have a long way to go to reach this point.

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