How One Company Helps Keep Russia’s TV Propaganda Machine Running

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Soon after it Russia broke into South Ossetia in 2008, effectively annexing the territory of its southern neighbor. A group of Georgians have come together to create a new Russian-language TV channel with a voice independent of the Kremlin: Channel PIK.

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With the help of Georgia’s public broadcaster, they signed a five-year contract with the French satellite operator Eutelsat to transmit their station to the Caucasus. Just two weeks after their launch in 2010, Eutelsat notified PIK that they fallen. Their place on the satellite was promised to Gazprom-Media Group, the main pillar of Moscow. tightly controlled media system.

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This is reported by the PIK channel. statement at the time that the saga “leaves Intersputnik and the Gazprom-Media group — both of which adhere to the Kremlin’s editorial line — with a virtual satellite broadcasting monopoly on the Russian-speaking audience.” Channel PIK get a seat on another Eutelsat a year later, but the station ran into problems and went offline in 2012.

More than ten years later, Russia is again trying to strengthen its informational hegemony in the region. Once again, Eutelsat makes it possible. But two satellite industry experts say the time has come for Ukraine’s allies to step up and force Eutelsat to prioritize real reporting on the situation in Ukraine over state-sponsored disinformation.

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“It is not normal that a French satellite is being used for a propaganda war,” says André Lange, one of the members of the Denis Diderot Committee. If their proposals are accepted, “it’s going to be a bombshell in the Russian media world,” says Jim Philipoff, a former satellite television executive and ex-CEO of the Kyiv Post. He is the other half of the Diderot Committee.

The Filipoff-Lange committee, formed in March, has essentially only one recommendation: cut off Russia’s main satellite TV providers from Eurosat satellites and replace them with stations bringing independent and credible journalism to Russia. “This is the ultimate goal of our efforts to actually provide alternative media channels to the Russian television space that are not controlled by the Russian government,” Filippov told WIRED.

Russian television everywhere and invariably advocated a war against Ukraine, dutifully promoting official propaganda– and too often disinformation. Satellite TV is especially important, especially in areas with poor broadband. The Council of Europe estimates that about 30 percent of Russian households pay for satellite television. According to Filippoff, about half of the country’s inhabitants have satellite dishes at home.

These dishes are largely calibrated to receive signals from the five satellites operated by Eutelsat. The two most important satellites are orbiting 36°E, covering most of Eastern Europe and western Russia: one, 36B, belongs directly to Eutelsat; the other, 36C, is owned by the Russian government and is leased to Eutelsat, which in turn leases space to Russian television operators. The remaining three satellites belong directly to Russia, but are operated by Eutelsat and cover central, northern and eastern Russia.

The two Russian operators that rely on these satellites, Tricolor and NTV+, broadcast many Russian, European and American channels from jingoistic news coverage broadcast by Channel One on networks owned by Disney. Several channels have disappeared from these packages in recent months. Some like CNN stopped broadcasting following the entry into force of new laws on media censorship; others, such as Euronews, were taken off the air the Kremlin.

The Diderot Committee says that if Eutelsat removes two Russian TV companies from its satellite, it can replace them with many free channels.

“It can create a lot of creativity,” says Filippoff. “And there are many exiled Russian journalists who would like to be part of the free television that is infiltrating Russia.” Filippov points to TV Rain, an independent Russian news station shut down by Moscow. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty can also connect to Eurosat satellites and operates its own stations in the region. To access these channels, users simply need cheap receivers that are not hard to find.

The West has tried provide independent journalism in Russia. The UK government has increased funding for the BBC to counter Russian disinformation; outlets such as New York Times have set up channels in Telegram, a very popular social network in Russia; and VPN providers configure new tunnels through Moscow Internet filtering as fast as the Kremlin can ban them.

The simple fact is that the French satellite operator gives Russia-controlled media access to millions of Russians. If Eutelsat decides to terminate the lease and provide premises to independent Russian and Ukrainian news outlets, this could disrupt Russian television broadcasts overnight.

“Of course they won’t like it,” Filippoff says. But they may not have many good options for revenge.

Russia could try to disrupt satellite signal – Tips stuck Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty throughout the Cold War and most recently Ethiopia blocked satellite signals from many independent Western media. Filippoff says such a dramatic escalation is unlikely. “This is pushing the information war almost to the limit.”

Beyond signal jamming and Moscow’s usual array of cyber and information tactics, they may not have a better way to retaliate without shutting down their own TV networks. “I think they would try to make do with what they have on 36C and let 36B go, you know, into alternative media.”

“One thing you have to understand about satellites is position — if it’s an established position — it’s like real estate. This is very important,” says Filippoff. According to him, if the satellite is located at 36 ° east longitude, this means that tens of millions of satellite dishes are fixed in this place. “You can’t just say, you know what? We’re going to move, you know, to 118°.” Recalibrating all those satellite dishes could take months, if not years, and millions of dollars.

But Eutelsat was lukewarm about the idea of ​​a break with Moscow.

Speaking to Danish news outlet Radar earlier this month, Eutelsat CEO Eva Bernecke insisted that Eutelsat would remain “neutral.She told Radar that the decision to exclude the Russian TV providers was up to the authorities.

In a statement to WIRED, Eutelsat reaffirmed its “commitment to neutrality.” Regarding the possible suspension of the operation of these Russian stations, the company said that it “is guided by the sanctions and decisions of its competent regulatory authorities.” The company points to RT France, which it stopped transferring following a March 1 regulatory decision.

“If the European authorities impose new sanctions against Russian channels, we will stop their broadcasting,” the company said. It added: “At this stage, no regulatory or other competent authority has asked us to stop broadcasting private Russian TV channels in Russia.”

Filippoff and Lange approached politicians, but with minimal effect. “We sent letters to all French members of the European Parliament,” says Lange. “Not a single answer.”

How exactly Paris or Brussels can force Eutelsat to block these Russian channels remains an open question. Lange and Filipoff say that if the European Parliament can ban English-language stations Sputnik and RT from going on the air, sanctions should have the power to remove Russian-language TV from their satellites. In May, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the EU Parliament that they would ban the three new broadcasters “in any form, be it cable, satellite, internet or smartphone apps.”

Politico reported that the three broadcasters are Russian-language news networks that reach Europe with some help from Eutelsat satellites.

Eutelsat told WIRED: “We are aware of the EU’s intention to impose sanctions on three Russian channels, two of which are broadcast on our satellites, and we are ready to immediately stop broadcasting them as soon as the relevant European regulation is published.”

The United States recently imposed sanctions on three Russian-language TV channels, including NTV (the flagship station of provider NTV+), after it concluded they were “spreading disinformation to support Putin’s war.” These sanctions are likely to affect their overseas earnings, but not their operations in Russia.

Pursuing the satellites themselves would be an extremely destructive escalation. Moscow and Kyiv have already set their sights on each other’s satellite communications.

Western intelligence agencies claim that a few hours before the invasion, Russian hackers took aim from the American satellite provider Viasat. “While the main target is believed to have been the Ukrainian military, other customers have also been affected, including private and commercial internet users,” the UK National Cyber ​​Center said in a joint statement. statement from US and EU.

Earlier this week, shortly before Russia’s Victory Day celebrations, which gave Moscow the perfect opportunity to show strength in the face of a stalled war, Ukraine’s State Special Communications Service announced that “[television] broadcasting from the Russian satellite to the occupied regions of Ukraine was unexpectedly turned off.”

As WIRED reported, Ukraine is aggressively deploying US- and European-provided Starlink terminalswhile Russian satellite communications remain restless.

European cooperation is not limited to Eutelsat satellite TV. Eutelsat owns two subsidiaries in Russia, including home internet provider Konnect. In turn, the Russian state-owned satellite operator owns a small stake in Eutelsat itself. (Corporate documents state that the majority of this 3.62% stake is owned by the Russian Satellite Communications Company, or RSCC.)

Meanwhile, some two dozen countries make up the Moscow-based Intersputnik consortium, primarily in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It consists of the Czech Republic, Romania, Germany and Ukraine. In 2020, France announced its intention to join Intersputnik.

Intersputnik operated part of the Soviet Union’s satellite fleet before being privatized after the collapse of the USSR. Moscow’s influence on the organization is fairly obvious: its chairman is a high-ranking civil servant in the Russian government.

As the West continues its messy divorce with Russia, an organization like Intersputnik could allow Russia to launch and maintain a satellite service that supports not only television, but Internet service, military communications, and geospatial visualization.

Lange and Filipoff of the Diderot Committee hope that this ongoing struggle may encourage more open information flows in the future, which is what their group’s ironic name suggests. As her website explains: “July 6, 1762, just nine days after the June 28 coup d’état that placed her on the throne, Catherine II invited the French philosopher Denis Diderot to come to Russia to publish Encyclopediawhich was banned in Paris. Diderot accepted her invitation and arrived in Petersburg in October 1773.

If Russia did not resist French censorship, Encyclopediaone of the most important works of the Enlightenment may never have been published.


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