MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin on Monday appointed a controversial news anchor to head a restructured state news agency, a move signaling the Kremlin's intention to tighten control over the media and use it increasingly for propaganda of ultraconservative views.
Dmitry Kiselyov, who spent much of his weekly news program on state Rossiya television maligning homosexuality and speculating about Western-led conspiracies, was put in charge of all the resources of the former RIA Novosti, which was renamed Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today).
The agency has been known for news coverage that at times appeared too comprehensive for the government's comfort, including active reportage on the anti-Putin protest movement.
The appointment makes Kiselyov the chief executive in a company of 2,300 employees, removable only by Putin himself. That promotion has come as a shock to many who previously derided the pro-Kremlin pundit — who controversially suggested that the internal organs of homosexuals should be burned and buried rather than donated — as an irrelevant lackey.
Kiselyov's conspiratorial, almost coquettish grin and over enthusiastic hand gestures have made him a recognizable staple of Russian television. But it's his toxic cocktail of punditry and sensationalism that has gained him his reputation as one of Russia's most famous —and reviled— news anchors.
Kiselyov has often led the attack in taking down the opposition movement, the West, homosexuals, and other groups that top the Kremlin agenda. His pugnacious punditry contrasts with that of some other anchors on state-owned channels, who often are more eager to censor issues out of the limelight than attack them head-on.
When Ukrainians flooded the streets last week to protest their president's shelving of a treaty with the European Union, Kiselyov lambasted Sweden and Poland, accusing them of encouraging massive protests in Kiev to take revenge for military defeats by czarist Russia centuries ago.
Kiselyov, who earned his degree in Scandinavian literature, rolled a clip of a Swedish children's program called "Poop and Pee," designed to teach children about their bodily functions. After the clip finished rolling, Kiselyov turned to the camera to suggest that this was the kind of European decadence awaiting Ukraine, if it signed a deal with the EU.
In Sweden there is "the radical growth of child abortions, early sex — the norm is nine years old, and at age 12 there is already child impotency," he said after the clip rolled.
That reportage gained him few friends in Ukraine, where one man bounded over to hand "an Oscar for the nonsense and lies" of Dmitry Kiselyov to the state television correspondent standing on Kiev's main square. He was brusquely pushed out of the shot before finishing his speech.
Kiselyov has also proven an avid attack dog on the issue of homosexuality, as international criticism over a Russian law banning gay "propaganda" reached a fever pitch this summer. The TV anchor said that homosexuals' hearts should be buried or burned, and that gays should be banned from donating blood or organs, which were "unsuitable for the prolongation of anyone's life."
He has turned his guns as well on the Kremlin's internal foes, airing critical accounts of opposition activists such as Alexei Navalny, who garnered nearly a third of the vote in an election for Moscow mayor in September. Kiselyov ran footage of Nazi marches, directly comparing the crowd's adulation of Hitler to that of Navalny's own audience: "A recognizable exultation, is it not?"
Russian media outlets speculated that the reshuffle was aimed at RIA Novosti's former director, Svetlana Mironyuk, who presided over the company's more objective coverage of massive anti-Putin protests sparked by a fraud-tainted parliamentary vote in 2011. While Mironyuk was said to be backed by some liberal figures in the Kremlin, that reportage received a more critical reception among its hawkish wing.
RIA Novosti's relatively broad coverage — particularly in its foreign language services — was even on display in the report on its own dissolution that said the changes "appear to point toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector."
While officials have claimed that the move is simply an attempt to make the company run more efficiently, Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov asserted the importance of the company's new political message in comments on Monday: "Russia ... strongly defends its national interests: it's difficult to explain this to the world but we can do this, and we must do this."
In 2005, RIA Novosti helped found Russia Today television, or RT, which now employs more than 1,000 people and broadcasts in English, Spanish and Arabic. It will remain separate from the revamped news agency, and Kiselyov will have no say in its operation.