Marco Werman: The country once at the heart of communism, Russia, is now a very different place politically. This week, President Vladimir Putin shut down one of the country's main news agencies called RIA Novosti. Critics say this is yet another example of Putin tightening his grip on the Russian media. Marc Bennetts is a British author based in Moscow. His upcoming book "Kicking The Kremlin" is about Russia's anti-Putin protest movement and he worked for RIA Novosti until this past May.
Marc Bennetts: It was a good place to work. I was sent to Chechnya, to Iran, to North Korea, places that would have been hard for a journalist with a foreign-based news agency to get into, but obviously Moscow has fairly good relations with Tehran and Pyongyang and so it was easier for them to send me there.
Werman: It is state-run. How did you feel that?
Bennetts: Not at all. I mean when I started it was during President Medvedev's term who was attempting to liberalize or, as he called it, "modernized" Russia. A part of this was a revamp of the RIA Novosti which is a very old news agency dating from the Soviet period. It was actually founded two days after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. And for a lot of time it was dealing with the usual Soviet propaganda. Basically when Medvedev came in with his liberal ideas, he wanted to have like a "normal" news agency in Russia and it was decided the RIA Novosti would be this. And they started to attract a lot of foreigners with experience in international media organizations. I mean when I was working there, there were people with experience at the New York Times, at Associated Press, the Guardian.
Werman: I mean it seems like RIA Novosti was a positive sign that the Kremlin could kind of trot out there, that even with a state-run news agency there's a semblance of free expression. Why did Putin go after it suddenly?
Bennetts: Well, as I said, it was Medvedev's baby. I mean he was, Medvedev, I mean there was some debate as to whether or not he was really sincere about his attempts to liberalize Russia, to modernize Russia, but I mean it seems like he was, it just wasn't very effective. When I was working it was quite [??] sometimes, especially when the protest were on. I was writing stories with leads, for example, like tens of thousands of people marching through the center of Moscow chanting "Putin is a thief" yesterday and at the end of the week I would get my Kremlin paycheck which was a very bizarre experience. And I want to say I think that kind of irritated a lot of people in the Kremlin, but what I'm talking about here is the English language service. The Russian language service wasn't quite as free I mean compared to other state media in Russia. They were amazing at it.
Werman: What have you been hearing from your former colleagues at RIA Novosti? How do they see the shakeup?
Bennetts: Well, no one really knows what's going on, I mean that the agency is going to be closed down and in it's place there's going to appear a new news agency called "Rossiya Segodnya" which translates as Russia Today which is actually the same name as the international news channel, the Kremlin-funded English language news channel Russia Today which is also known as RT.
Werman: RT. Right.
Bennetts: And I don't think it's a coincidence that they've chosen the same name.
Werman: What is Vladimir Putin's endgame here? I assume he's the one who is kinda engineering all of this.
Bennetts: Well, Putin doesn't know much about the media really. I mean Putin thinks that journalists can't be independent, that anyone who writes anything critical of anyone is doing it for money and because they've been ordered to do it. Putin was looking at what RIA Novosti was producing and was thinking, "Why? Let's just tell them not to write it." And the man who is going to head this new news agency is one of the most notorious controversial television presenters in Russia Today. He's name is Dimitry Kiselyov. He's been one of the most vocal supporters of the anti-gay law here. He was on national television. He suggested that the law wasn't harsh enough. I think it just suggest that a darkness is spreading over Russia.
Werman: Marc Bennetts, author and journalist in Moscow. Thanks for your time.
Bennetts: Thank you.