MOSCOW - Russia is set to lose one of its few relatively objective news outlets as the Kremlin moves to tighten its grip on the country's media. In an unexpected move last week, President Vladimir Putin ordered the closure of the RIA Novosti news agency and the creation of a new global news agency - Rossia Segodnya - to be run by one of the most pro-government figures in the media.
The Kremlin said the decision was taken for financial reasons. But critics say the development means that the new station will almost certainly become just a tool for government propaganda.
Tatiana Gomozova, a journalist and political analyst with Kommersant FM radio station, told IPS: "It's another media outlet
being turned into a propaganda bureau with all RIA's facilities now to be used for propaganda."
Although state-owned, RIA Novosti was seen as one of Russia's most objective news services in a media landscape which is heavily regulated and largely under government control.
Almost all the country's TV channels are controlled by the state, while most regional newspapers are, mainly because of financial ties, in the hands of local authorities. Among national newspapers, there is some degree of independent and critical reporting on various issues.
Johann Bihr, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Bureau at Reporters Without Borders, told IPS: "The national press is slightly different in that it is probably the most critical of the government - ie some criticism can be found there at least, and certainly among some of the online news outlets."
But individual journalists also face problems doing their work. While self-censorship is a problem among journalists - although Reporters Without Borders says that this practice has been waning in recent years - independent journalists reporting critically on the state, especially in areas such as human rights, can often find themselves facing intimidation, or worse.
According to the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), 62 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1997, making it the sixth-deadliest country for reporters in the past 16 years. The group says that the real figure could be higher as impunity for attacks on journalists in Russia remains the general rule and the vast majority of cases go unsolved.
In an interview with the IPI earlier this year, Novaya Gazeta investigative reporter Elena Milashina explained the problems faced by some journalists in Russia.
She said: "I think there was a kind of political order or demand in the country when Putin came to power the first time; he kind of announced a war on free media... .When such attacks on journalists happen, journalists go to the police and the police don't want to investigate. When they have to do so, because of a murder, they do it slowly because no one is pushing. Impunity is the rule and they understand that nothing will happen to them if they don't investigate.
"Behind murders, a high-level politician stands in almost all cases. Investigators understand that if they are digging around, they will have problems. When people try to criticize the regime - not just journalists, but human rights defenders too - at a high level they try to show that it's not safe to do so, and that they [politicians] can get away with anything."
The authorities' iron grip on the media is highlighted by the fact that Russia ranks 148th in Reporters Without Borders' Freedom of the Press Index. This puts it below countries such as Libya, Angola and Afghanistan.
The appointment of one of its most fervent supporters to the top position in the Rossia Segodnya agency suggests state control is not being relaxed in any way.
Dmitri Kiselyov is a TV host who is well-known for his pro-government and ultra-conservative views. He has previously praised Stalinist policies and recently called for the hearts of homosexuals to be burned when they die.
Speaking on state-owned TV channel Russia 24 just hours after his appointment he outlined the aims for Rossia Segodnya as "restoring a fair attitude towards Russia, an important country in the world that has good intentions, is the mission of the new organization."
It is his appointment, directly by Putin, as head of the news agency that is a more worrying signal of the government's intent towards the country's media than the liquidation of a relatively objective news outlet, say experts.
Gomozova told IPS: "There's not much media freedom in Russia already, so losing RIA won't mean we've lost that much. But this is a very strong signal for journalists - nobody is safe now. The government doesn't care even about its own media. They don't respect any media with a story, nor its team, nor that team's job. They need a resource so they just go and get it."
Bihr added: "It sounds ominous for the future that Kiselyov has been made head of the new organization, and the fact that its head has been appointed by the president directly says a lot about its possible future policy."