President Vladimir Putin tightened his control over Russia's media on Monday by dissolving the main state news agency and replacing it with an organization that is to promote Moscow's image abroad.
Putin's decision to name a news anchorman notorious for his anti-opposition and anti-gay views to head the revamped state news agency unleashed a wave of controversy in the Russian media world.
Putin signed a decree dissolving Russia's biggest news agency RIA Novosti, ordering the creation in its place of a new media conglomerate.
The new company Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) will focus on "coverage abroad of Russian state policy and public life," the document published on the Kremlin website said.
It explained the measure to create the vast holding with multilingual services as a way of "raising efficiency of state media resources."
The move appears as a push by the Kremlin to consolidate state media resources at a time of increasing online criticism of Putin's 13 years of rule and to take a pro-active approach in shaping Russia's image abroad.
Most Russian media outlets are already loyal to Putin, and opponents get little air time, but the shake-up underlined their importance to Putin keeping power and the Kremlin's concern about the president's ratings and image.
Putin named Dmitry Kiselyov, a controversial figure often accused of being a propaganda mouthpiece and known for openly anti-gay, anti-American, and anti-opposition views, as the head of Russia Today.
"When this news first appeared, everyone thought it was a joke," Russian protest leader and widely-followed blogger Alexei Navalny wrote on his Live Journal page. "But no."
Kiselyov is the deputy head of Russia's state-run federal television company but is best known to the public for the weekly news round-up show he presents every Sunday on the Rossiya channel which is marked by venomous attacks on the opposition.
RIA Novosti has in recent years expanded rapidly, adding a sports wire and an economy wire to its services. The news apparently came as a shock to its staff with one employee, who asked not to be named, saying they found out from the Kremlin's website.
The agency is one of the biggest in the world and is also an official sponsor of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi next February.
It also recently became known for its detailed live reporting from Russia's most high-profile trials.
RIA said in an English-language article about Putin's step: "The move is the latest in a series of shifts in Russia's news landscape which appear to point towards a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector."