Not long after Russia steamrolled into South Ossetia in 2008, effectively annexing the territory of its southern neighbor, a group of Georgians banded together to set up a new Russian-language television station, 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 into the Caucasus. Just two weeks after they launched in 2010, Eutelsat notified PIK that they were dropped. Their space on the satellite had been promised to Gazprom Media Group, a chief pillar in Moscow’s tightly controlled media system.
Kanal PIK said in a statement at the time that the saga “leaves Intersputnik and Gazprom Media Group–both of which adhere to the Kremlin’s editorial line–with a de facto satellite transmission monopoly over Russian-language audience.” Kanal PIK would acquire a spot on another Eutelsat a year later, but the station struggled and went dark in 2012.
More than a decade on, Russia once again finds itself trying to consolidate its information hegemony in the region. Eutelsat once again makes it possible. Two experts in the satellite industry believe it’s time for Ukraine’s allies to step up and make Eutelsat prioritize reporting on the situation in Ukraine, rather than Russian state-backed disinformation.
“It’s not normal that a French satellite is used for a propaganda war,” says Andre Lange, one half of the Denis Diderot Committee. Jim Phillipoff, an ex-Kyiv Post CEO and satellite TV executive, says that if their proposals are accepted, it would be “a bomb going off” in Russia’s media world. He is the other half the Diderot Committee.
Formed in March, Phillipoff and Lange’s committee has, essentially, only one recommendation: Unplug Russia’s main satellite television providers from the Eutelsat satellites and replace them with stations carrying independent and credible journalism into Russia. Phillipoff told WIRED that the ultimate goal of their effort was to provide alternative media channels into Russia’s television space.
Russian television has been ubiquitously and unfailingly in favor of the war against Ukraine, dutifully promoting Moscow’s official propaganda–and, all too often, disinformation. Satellite television is particularly important in areas without broadband connectivity. The Council of Europe estimates that about 30 percent of Russian households pay for satellite television. Phillipoff estimates that half of Russia has satellite dishes in their homes.
Those dishes are largely calibrated to receive signals from five satellites, all managed by Eutelsat. The two most important satellites orbit at 36deg east, giving them coverage for 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 back to Russian television operators. The three other satellites, which cover central, northern and eastern Russia, are directly owned by Russia, but managed by Eutelsat.