From RIA to Russia Today* (not RT)

RIA Novosti, Russia’s main state-run news agency, is going to be dissolved. So is Voice of Russia, a publication that I’ve written for, and Rossiyskaya Gazeta and its Russia Beyond the Headlines project*. They are to be merged into a new organization confusingly called Rossiya Segodnya (“Russia Today”), which is NOT the same as the (in)famous TV station. The Russia Today that we know and love (or hate) has long formally rebranded itself as RT, though it continues to be colloquially referred to as “Russia Today” by friends and foes alike.

This is an important point to make, as some Western media outlets – most notably, the Guardian – have claimed otherwise. Amusingly enough, a few of their commentators now say they are boycotting RT (the TV station) because the new director of Russia Today (aka Rossiya Segodnya), Dmitry Kiselyov, is apparently somewhat of a homophobe. At least, that is the only information about him (other than being pro-Putin) that the Guardian deemed worthy to include.

Why is RIA being folded up? I think there are two main reasons. Reading their article on their own demise will give you a clue as to the first:

The move is 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.

In a separate decree published Monday, the Kremlin appointed Dmitry Kiselyov, a prominent Russian television presenter and media manager recently embroiled in a scandal over anti-gay remarks, to head Rossiya Segodnya.

This is representative of RIA’s typical editorial slant, which is usually critical of the government position. (So much so that The Independent’s Shaun Walker described it as “surprisingly decent”).

This is okay and indeed appropriate if RIA was primarily a Russian language service catering to a Russian audience. But its not. Its primary audience are Westerners, who don’t exactly suffer from a lack of access to negative Russia coverage. To take but the latest example, their coverage of the recent unrest in Ukraine was explicitly pro-Euromaidan. Konstantin Eggert has a column there called “Due West,” which is exactly what it says on the tin: A pulpit from which to incessantly proclaim how Russia sucks, why RT should be defunded and Assange imprisoned, and why the West and Saakashvili are the best things since sliced white bread. Vasily Gatov, one of RIA’s most senior people, claimed that “Grozny” was afraid that the FBI would take the second Boston bomber alive (presumably, because the FSB trained him up, or something). Make no mistake, I do think that freedom of speech is good and it’s great that Eggert enjoys it in Russia – though it’s worth mentioning that the sentiment is not reciprocal – but the notion becomes rather absurd and even distorted when a state news agency consistently attacks and undermines the government in the eyes of foreigners.

This does not happen in the West. Whatever their domestic disagreements, there is an implicit understanding among American politicians that criticism of the US and the US government is off limits so far as foreigners are concerned. The same goes for America’s “soft power” media. You will simply not find much anti-US material on RFERL or Voice of America. The same goes for the BBC, Al Jazeera, CCTV, France 24, and Deutche Welle as regards the foreign policies of their respective countries (aka sponsors). Russia making an exception on this issue is maladaptive and not even widely appreciated to boot.

In this respect, RIA has long been somewhat of aberration, and frankly the only thing surprising is that it took the Kremlin this long to comprehend and rationalize the situation. Western journalists complain about clampdowns and neo-Sovietism all they want. The Russian taxpayer owes them nothing. In the meantime:

“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 told reporters.

In that respect, RIA didn’t help; it hindered.

The second reason is that it was not a very efficient organization. The official reasons for RIA’s dissolution have to do with “saving money and making state media more effective.” I know a few people in RIA, and they generally agree that it is an over-bureaucratized and unresponsive behemoth. One acquantaince (who sometimes comments here) had a more concrete complaint:

I needed to license two images from the RIA-Novosti photo archive for my book, and it took FOREVER. Just getting a reply to my original inquiry took weeks. It was as though they didn’t understand that I was trying to *give* them money to provide the service they actually advertise.

And here is Peter Lavelle on his experience with working with RIA:

Some thoughts on the demise/restructuring of RIA Novosti: For a short time I worked for RIA as a website commentator and unofficial English language editor. This was around 2004-05. Before that I was writing for United Press International as a (slave) stringer. I wrote about 20 articles a month for the sum total of $1990! Yep, I was rolling in it! And to top it off, UPI would not pony up to pay part of my yearly visa expense. With my income, that visa was expensive.

I had heard that the now defunct Russia Profile was looking for a journalist-correspondent. I interviewed for the position. I wasn’t what they were looking for. However, a deal was cut with RIA – I would have a half-time job with Russia Profile, and the second half with RIA. The money was better, but nothing to cheer about and the visa was taken care of. Working for Russia Profile was more or less fine. Working with RIA was bureaucratic and cumbersome. I ended up sitting with the very nice people in the English language wire service. I wrote my daily comments among them, while often proof reading wire stories before they went out online. But after a few months, I was told to slow down “Peter, you write too much, you work too hard.” Strange, yeah?

Within a week or so, I was writing one or two pieces a week – for the same salary. Later I was told privately the other (Russian) columnists had complained that “this foreigner” works too hard and makes us all look bad. Then RT (then Russia Today) came along. This is an entirely different story (and will wait for later). Two remaining things stay with me about RIA.

First, they wouldn’t let me quit! No, I would have to stay, even if I didn’t write for them I stayed and would be paid. That lasted for about six months. I don’t recall collecting my wages from them in remaining months; it was so idiotic.

Second, as RT expanded (literally in the RIA building), RT staff was treated like second-class citizens. Our ability to move about the building was at times bordering on the ridiculous. In the end we were segregated to certain entrances, and ordered to a separate smoking area. RIA had no interest in even sharing resources for professional purposes – like sharing video and other journalistic assets. I will not miss RIA Novosti as an organization. However, I hope to stay in contact with some very good friends who have worked there, particularly at the Moscow News. They never have had any influence over policy making.

Those who remember those days at RIA know I recollecting only 1% of the saga…

Say what you will about it, but RT is generally acknowledged to be far more responsive and dynamic.

Funding for Russian media activities abroad is going to be reduced in the coming years, so it’s not illogical to rationalize it. This is a long known fact that is linked to the general budget austerity that will predominate in 2014-16. But the various Russian foreign media projects and scattered, and all too often compete with each other as opposed to cooperating. In addition to the big ones, RIA and RT, there is also the Voice of Russia (which in turn has competing bureaus in Moscow, London, and Washington DC) and Russia Beyond the Headlines (which is a project of the state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, and which in turn has a panoply of sub-projects such as Russia & India Report and a sponsored section – which basically noone accesses or reads – in The Daily Telegraph). All their websites are subpar, even relative to RT, which is ironic since RT is primarily TV whereas RIA is now most deeply rooted in the Internet.

A rationalization of this unwieldy mess of Soviet-era legacy organizations is well past due, and that is seemingly what is going to happen. RIA, Voice of Russia, and RBTH will all be consolidated into Russia Segodnya. RT will remain separate.

There are difficulties and unresolved issues. For instance, RIA itself has a vast and rather disorganized number of projects, such as RAPSI (provides legal information, esp. on trials and sucklike), Valdai (meetings of foreign and Russian experts to discuss Russia’s trajectory, culminating in yearly meetings with Putin), and InoSMI (a resource that translates foreign media into Russian). Many of these projects are genuinely useful, and while RIA itself may be superfluous, I very much hope that they will continue either under Rossiya Sedognya’s umbrella or independently. But so far there’s no news on that front. Senior RIA people are just as much in the dark as everyone else.

tl;dr. There are two main reasons for merging RIA and a few other Russian media projects into a new organization: (1) To rein in the pro-Western liberals who have seized control of RIA’s editorial policy, and (2) to rationalize their wasteful and inefficient bureaucracies in a period of moderate budget austerity. On balance, these are “good” and much-needed reforms.

* Not exactly, see RBTH comments on recent changes in the Russian media landscape.

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