MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin dissolved one of Russia’s official news agencies, RIA Novosti, along with its international radio broadcaster Monday, signaling a significant reorganization in state media at a time when Russia has faced international criticism over political oppression and human rights.
The two agencies will be absorbed into a new state organization known as Rossiya Sevodnya, or Russia Today, to be led by a television executive and host, Dmitry K. Kiselyov, who has provoked controversy with starkly homophobic remarks and virulent commentary about foreign conspiracies against Russia.
Putin’s presidential chief of staff, Sergei B. Ivanov, said the decision was part of an effort to reduce costs and make the country’s state media more efficient, but RIA Novosti’s report on its own demise said the changes “appear to point toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector.”
The decision seemed to catch the agencies’ employees by surprise.
Putin made the changes by decree without prior notice or public debate, as is often the case here. The decree said the new agency would focus on providing news about Russia to an international audience; the agency’s directors will be directly appointed by the president’s office.
The reasons behind the timing were also unclear and, to many, puzzling. RIA Novosti is one of the official sponsors of the Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi in February, and its employees have been deeply involved in organizing preparations for media coverage there.
Russia’s policies, including a new law prohibiting advocacy of nontraditional sexual relationships, have prompted harsh criticism from rights organizations and even some calls for a boycott of the Olympics.
“Russia has its own independent politics and strongly defends its national interests,” Ivanov, a close ally of Putin, said in remarks to reporters, according to RIA Novosti. “It’s difficult to explain this to the world, but we can do this and we must do this.”
He suggested that Russia had had some difficulties with the effort to successfully explain its views abroad. “We must tell the truth, make it accessible to the most people possible, and use modern language and the best available technologies in doing so,” he added.
RIA Novosti’s roots extend to World War II, when it was founded as the Soviet Information Bureau two days after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. According to the agency, it has correspondents in 45 countries and provides reports in Russian and 13 other languages. It was renamed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and while it continued to serve as an official news agency, its reporting has earned greater respect for balance and a diversity of viewpoints.
That troubled at least some here. Maxim L. Shevchenko, a prominent television personality, called the reorganization “a sensible step” in a post on Twitter. “The nest of anti-Russian media forces has been destroyed,” he wrote.
That an official news agency could be considered hostile to its own government reflected some deep divisions within Russia’s political elite.
The new agency’s name, Rossiya Sevodnya, is the Russian translation of the original name of the Kremlin’s international television network, now rebranded simply as RT and known for its jaundiced view of the failings of the United States and other Western countries.
Alexei A. Navalny, the anticorruption blogger and opposition leader, lamented the demise of a “strong Soviet brand” in a posting on Twitter and said “Russia Today,” as a brand, was “something repulsive.”
Andrei Miroshnicheko, an independent media critic here, said that RIA Novosti and the other state news agency, Itar-Tass, had effectively competed for resources and influence. He said RIA Novosti had become the most respected news agency in the former Soviet Union, one he associated closely with the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, who has served as prime minister since Putin returned to the presidency last year.
The new agency, he said, would now revert to its mission before the dawn of “the post-Soviet era,” as an arm of “foreign propaganda,” while Itar-Tass would focus on domestic news.