“In any country, the government is evil to a certain extent,” said Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov with a biting truthfulness that is rare among politicians. He was talking about Russia and its faltering economy: The government “should bring as little evil as possible to the business community,” he explained. Business community, OK, we get that. But what about the people?
That was in September. The answer came today when the Kremlin announced that President Vladimir Putin had signed a decree that would liquidate news agency RIA Novosti, a state-run service with reporters in 45 countries, founded in 1941, that publishes in 14 languages, including English, and has apparently too much of a mind of its own.
“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,” the miffed RIA Novosti pointed out.
But Russia isn’t alone. Other countries with somewhat less tarnished democracies are also cracking down on uppity efforts to get the truth out. The Japanese Diet just passed the state secrets protection law, darling of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The ruling coalition ramrodded it through despite vociferous protests outside the Diet Building and furious opposition inside.
The vaguely worded legislation could severely curtail the public’s right to know, and the media’s right to publish inconvenient facts, such as data leaked by insiders about the spreading radioactive contamination from Fukushima or other debacles the government wants to keep under wraps. Ministers and bureaucrats could declare embarrassing items a “state secret” to keep the public in the dark. Leaking, handling, and publishing these “state secrets” can now be punished by up to 10 year in an immaculate Japanese hoosegow.
It has come at a price for Abe and his cabinet. The law is roundly despised, and the fact that the ruling coalition used its raw political capital to force it through caused Abe’s approval ratings to plunge. Kyodo News reported a 10.3 percentage-point drop to 47.6% and Asahi Shimbun a 7 percentage-point drop to 46.
The UK government is cracking down on Alan Rusbridger, editor in chief of The Guardian, for its series on the Snowden revelations. Among other things, a parliamentary committee badgered and intimidated him, with MPs questioning his love for the country and suggesting that a crime had been committed.
In order to stop the publication of these kinds of stories, Rusbridger and The Guardian had been subjected to all sorts of pressures. “They include prior restraint,” he said. “They include a senior Whitehall official coming to see me to say: ‘There has been enough debate now.’ They include asking for the destruction of our disks. They include MPs calling for the police to prosecute the editor. So there are things that are inconceivable in the US.”
Or so he thinks.
Russia is therefore not the only country to crack down on its media. Keeping people in the dark is a universal goal of governments and corporations alike, though a bit harder to achieve these days. Yet Putin has tools available that other governments envy him for, including the adept use of decrees.
Today’s decrees liquidate RIA Novosti, along with state broadcasting company Voice of Russia. Their assets will be rolled into a new state-owned media conglomerate, Rossiya Segodnya, which translates into “Russia Today,” though it appears to be separate from the former Russia Today, now called RT, a government-funded TV channel that broadcasts in English.
If you see a lot of “state-owned” or “government-funded” as descriptors in the Russian media scene, it’s for a reason.
The decree further specifies that Rossiya Segodnya will be headquartered in the RIA Novosti building in downtown Moscow. To show just what is going on, another decree appoints Kremlin’s man to run the conglomerate: television personality and manager at the state-owned Rossiya 24 TV channel, Dmitry Kiselyov.
Kiselyov had become infamous around the world in August when he, during a televised debate about a law banning homosexual “propaganda,” explained the intricacies of the issue to an applauding audience. “I think banning gays from distributing propaganda to children is not enough,” he said. “I think they should be banned from donating blood or sperm, and if they die in a car crash, their hearts should be burnt or buried in the ground as unsuitable for the continuation of life.”
The persuasive face of the institutionalization of homophobia in Russia will run Rossiya Segodnya. His mission, he pointed out, would be “to restore a fair attitude to Russia in every country of the world.” It’s going to be a formidable propaganda machine.
But it was all about saving money, Sergei Ivanov, Chief of Staff of the presidential administration, told reporters. And making state media more effective. “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.”
The decree cleaned house in other areas. It merges state-run Rossiiskaya Gazeta with the state-run Rodina (“Motherland”) magazine. It also shuts down The Russian Book Chamber and transfers its property to the ITAR-TASS state news agency. The government has three months to implement the decrees.
In a similar vein, in November, Gazprom-Media, part of government-run Gazprom, acquired control of Russian media company Profmedia, “one of Russia’s largest groups with a leading position in entertainment media” that manages numerous major brands.
This consolidation of the vast Russian media landscape in the hands of Putin and his ilk is surely designed to enhance earnings, improve entertainment quality, attract more viewers, bring more cheer and satisfaction into the homes of all Russians, and educate them with the correct and proper information. Since RIA Novosti publishes its content in other languages, including English, we can safely assume that the new management is fully focused on spreading these exciting qualities to a screen near you and around the world. Because cool propaganda never goes out of style.