The Tully Center for Free Speech

Free Speech Zone

Reporting Olympics for non-existent agency

By Elena Sorokina, February 7, 2014

With many eyes on Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia continues a free speech crackdown.

The Olympics starting today in Sochi will be covered by 2 800 journalists. The number includes a few dozens of Russian sports reporters from RIA Novosti, whose future after the Olympics is very uncertain.

Ria.ru courtesy picture

Ria.ru courtesy picture

The biggest Russian news agency RIA Novosti got “liquefied” in December 2013 with President Putin’s decree. The decree was published on the Kremlin’s website and shocked employees, management and even CEO of the agency. The decree states that the purpose of closing is “economy” and reformatting. Experts say this is yet another step in the crackdown on civil rights in the country, and the agency is “punished” for its liberal views. The agency was given three months to be reorganized. Therefore, right after the Olympics, journalist will face some dramatic changes.

“This step is another one in the series of changes of Russian news landscape that, it seems, points out at the tightening of the governmental control in the media sector that is quite regulated already,” it was said on the English version of the Ria Novosti website that normally copies the Russian version. This time, the Russian version, however, didn’t have the same message. Shortly after the message was quoted by other media, it was taken down from the website.

According to Putin’s decree, Ria Novosti is to be transformed into the new agency called Russia Today that would provide  news about Russia for foreign audience. “Restoring a fair attitude to Russia as an important country in the world with good intentions – it is the mission of the new structure,” says the appointed CEO of the new agency Dmitriy Kisilev. In other words, the purpose of Russia Today is propaganda or, as it called in the 21st century, news subsidies.

In Russia, Kiselev’s name rings the bell: his pro-government statements have earned him a reputation as a “Kremlin soapbox.”  Instead of going on and on about his loyalty to the government, it is better to quote him once to get the idea.

“I believe that gays should not only be fined for promoting homosexuality among young adults. They need to be banned from donation of blood, sperm, and their hearts, in the case of a car accident, should be buried or burned as unfit to continue someone’s life,” Kiselev commented on the Russian notorious anti-gay propaganda law.

It is still unclear how the agency will be reorganized and what is to happen to its assets: developed infrastructure, subscriptions from hundreds of businesses and media outlets, network of regional and foreign correspondents, 40 websites on 22 foreign languages. The agency is given three months for reorganization.

It is also unknown what is to happen with thousands of agency’s employees. Even the CEO Svetlana Mironyuk didn’t see it coming, according to her own words.

“Sorry those whom I couldn’t protect. I am really hurt,” said Mironyuk tearfully the day the decree was published.

Employees expressed their same level of frustration on social media. However, after two days  Mironyuk changed her position and insisted that the employees should not comment on the closure, even on social media.

On the agency’s corporate portal, she posted a statement saying that everyone should comply with the president’s decisions.

“You work in the federal media and Ria Novosti’s main stakeholder is Russian Federation. We are required to comply with federal leaders’ decrees. I also ask you not to react to provocative calls on social media for so called ‘support actions’ for Ria Novosti employees. Those, who organize them, are avid provocateurs and are interested in destabilizing the work of the agency,” said (ex)-CEO in the statement.

Some employees used social media to post notes of help to find a new job. “They ask us to stay and work for the new company, but I would never stay. It will be hard to go from liberal to pro-government in one day. Don’t want to get this propaganda watermark on my forehead for the rest of the career,” says the agency’s editor who asked to be anonymous.

Ria Novosti is appointed to be the national Olympic Games host-agency. “The country will see the Games with Ria Novosti’s eyes”, said the website banner long time before the opening ceremony. Right after the Games, in March 2014 these eyes will be shut.