Putin and RIA Novosti: Rebrand or re-control?

December 20, 2013 • Media and Politics, Press Freedom • by

Is Putin’s swift reorganization of RIA Novosti really an exercise of strengthening control or is it merely a rebranding strategy planned well in advance? The EJO’s Rukhshona Nazhmidinova looks at the reactions and implications to the news.

The agency’s staff members were certainly surprised, according to reports by TV Rain (ТВ Дождь). In this video Svetlana Mironyuk, RIA Novosti’s former editor in chief, addresses the agency’s employees with a farewell speech and acknowledges it was a surprise for her, too.  Russia Today’s chief editor Margarita Simonyan found out about the news from other news channels. Shortly after the news broke on December 9, she tweeted “I found out about RIA Novosti and etc. from Kommersant FM, which demonstrates how quick Kommersant is at reporting. Well done!” adding later that she didn’t know why the new channel was to be called Rossia Segodnya but that she liked it nevertheless.

The new general director of the Russia Today media holding Dmitriy Kiselyov, who is also the deputy general director of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK, ВГТРК), was appointed personally by Putin. Kiselyov is seen as one of the most openly pro-Kremlin and anti-West figures in the Russian media arena.

Before being appointed as the head of the new media holding Kiselyov was awarded with a fake Oscar during a live report by a Ukrainian journalist for “spreading lies and nonsense” about Ukraine’s EuroMaidan protests. Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalnyy mocked the new appointment saying that Kiselyov was “a perfectly matching face of state propaganda.” Many others saw this as a sign of further restricting press freedom, too; despite being state owned RIA Novosti was perceived as a more liberal and independent news agency.

But if we leave the sensational news bits behind, this move is nothing more than a long and thoroughly planned, albeit secret rebranding.

One of the news agency stringers, who asked for anonymity as she is uncertain about her future there, told the European Journalism Observatory that according to an internal communiqué, the RIA Novosti brand will continue to function within the larger media holding Russia Today. According to this document no permanent positions would be affected by the reorganization at RIA Novosti and that the new chief editor Irakliy Gachechiladze will have to work with the old team in the same format. This was confirmed by Maria Gusarova, an employee of the RAPSI News sevice [one of RIA Novosti’s websites], who tweeted that Kiselyov promised to keep the RIA-Novosti brand.

The change does not seem so drastic if we recall that RIA Novosti is already a part of the state-owned VGTRK since 1998, while Russia Today is a child-project of RIA Novosti launched in 2005.

Mironyuk supported the project. She is quoted by Fairfax Media, that “… at the level of mass consciousness in the West, Russia is associated with three words: communism, snow and poverty. We would like to present a more complete picture of life in our country.” A new international brand named Russia Today seemed as a perfect solution and the efforts did not go in vain.

Just like Al-Jazeera, Russia Today positions itself as a news channel that shows an alternative view to the mainstream western media. Soon after launch RT started winning international awards and was twice nominated for the International Emmy Awards, including once for the coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. By 2013 Russia Today becomes popular among the Western audience in a way that RIA Novosti has never been, hitting a record of more than a billion views on YouTube alone.

It is thus no wonder that the state has decided to shift the focus towards a more internationally influential brand within the same family of news providers.

As for RIA Novosti’s relative liberty and independence, it is best described by a piece of Mironyuk’s tearful farewell speech: “…the President’s decree is what it is, and we – as employees of the state – do not dispute this decree; we abide and implement it [the decree].” That is to say that the agency enjoyed exactly as much freedom as the state allowed it in the first place.

Photo credit: Juerg Vollmer / Flickr Cc

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