Shortly after Russia invaded South Ossetia in 2008 and effectively annexed its southern neighbor’s territory, a group of Georgians banded together to found a new Russian-language television channel, a voice independent of the Kremlin: Kanal PIK.
With the help of Georgia’s public broadcaster, they signed a five-year deal with French satellite operator Eutelsat to beam their station to the Caucasus. Just two weeks after their launch in 2010, Eutelsat told PIK that this was the case dropped. Gazprom Media Group, a mainstay in Moscow, was promised its place on the satellite strictly controlled media system.
Channel PIK said in a statement at that time that the saga “leaves Intersputnik and the Gazprom Media Group — both of which adhere to the Kremlin’s editorial line — a de facto satellite broadcasting monopoly over Russian-speaking audiences.” channel PIK would get a place on another Eutelsat a year later, but the channel struggled and went dark in 2012.
More than a decade later, Russia is once again attempting to consolidate its information hegemony in the region. And once again Eutelsat makes it possible. But two satellite industry experts say it’s time for Ukraine’s allies to step up and force Eutelsat to prioritize real reports on the situation in Ukraine over Russia’s state-sponsored disinformation.
“It is not normal for a French satellite to be used for a propaganda war,” says André Lange, one half of the Denis Diderot Committee. If passed, their proposals “would set off a bombshell in the Russian media world,” says Jim Phillipoff, a former satellite TV executive and former CEO of the Kiev Post. He’s the other half of the Diderot Committee.
Phillipoff and Lange’s committee, formed in March, has essentially one recommendation: divest Russia’s main satellite TV providers from the Eutelsat satellites and replace them with channels that bring independent and credible journalism to Russia. “That is the ultimate goal of our efforts – to actually bring alternative media channels that are not controlled by the Russian government into the Russian television space,” Phillipoff told WIRED.
Russian television was ubiquitous and invariably pro-war on Ukraine and dutifully promoted Moscow’s war official propaganda– and all too often disinformation. Satellite TV is particularly important, especially for areas with poor broadband connectivity. The Council of Europe estimates that around 30 percent of Russian households pay for satellite television. About half the country has satellite dishes in their homes, Phillipoff says.
These dishes are broadly calibrated to receive signals from five satellites, all managed by Eutelsat. The two main satellites orbit at 36° East, covering much of Eastern Europe and Western Russia: one, 36B, is owned directly by Eutelsat; the other, 36C, is owned by the Russian government and leased to Eutelsat, which in turn leases space to Russian television operators. The other three satellites are directly owned by Russia but managed by Eutelsat and cover central, northern and eastern Russia.
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