The West clearly holds the advantage in military technology, but we are being defeated on the information front. It’s time to get in the game and seriously begin to fight back. And we can start with Eutelsat.
Since launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has intensified his ongoing information war against the West.
To do it, Russia has weaponized its television distribution apparatus. This includes media outlets RT and Sputnik, a host of Russian language TV channels, the global troll army, and election manipulation to name just a few. RT’s budget alone is $460 million in 2022, growing eightfold since 2010.
The West has thus far largely refrained from significant offensive attempts to take the information fight to Putin on his own soil.
However, there is one company that could significantly alter Putin’s lockdown of the television space. Eutelsat SA, the French satellite company, operates the 36°E orbital position, from which more than 25 percent of Russians receive their television signal.
Recently, Eutelsat has come under increased pressure to drop its Russian channels and pay-TV platforms from this satellite as well as others around the world. This pressure has been a long time in the making and is largely the result of Dr. André Lange’s tireless work as Coordinator of the Denis Diderot Committee, which he and I founded eight months ago.
In March 2022, I wrote an article about the importance of Eutelsat, which prompted Dr. Lange to take action.
Dr. Lange’s incredible work includes detailed reports on Eutelsat’s activities, which has helped generate interest from the press and the involvement of many individuals and organizations. These have included (among others): Journalists Without Borders; the European Parliament; the Council of Ukraine For Television And Radio Broadcasting; Vera Jourova – Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency; Andrus Ansip – former Prime Minister of Estonia, Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties – winner of the Nobel Peace Prize this year and the Stop the Bloodcasting Coalition.
Importance of Eutelsat in revealing the truth
Our main interest in Eutelsat is not simply to punish a Western company that continues to profit from Russia – there are already more than enough of such targets. Eutelsat is special because of the number of Russians with satellite dishes fixed to the 36°E position. Tricolor and NTV+, two Russian pay-TV operators, lease capacity on this satellite which has attracted more than 15 million households as subscribers.
Yet, if Eutelsat would allow third parties to broadcast alternative channels from this position, millions of Russians would have access to them with relative ease. Such a television package could become a wellspring of Russian opposition, as well as providing ordinary Russians with the truth about their war in Ukraine.
Eutelsat’s CEO, Eva Berneke, often cites the company’s policy of neutrality in answer as to why they do not block the warmongering Russian channels. But if Eutelsat is truly neutral, why do they only permit Kremlin-backed providers on 36°E?
In the past I have been told by representatives of Eutelsat that all 36°E’s Eurasia beam is being used by the Russians entities, so they cannot offer it to anyone else. Yet clearly, they have free capacity which is easily visible on industry websites like Lyngsat.
Eutelsat is also important because television is still the primary source of news for Russian households. According to a 2019 Mediascope survey, 70 percent of Russians prefer to receive their news from television, more than any other source.
We already know that limiting alternative news to internet sites in Russia is not enough, as any website can easily be blocked. Since the beginning of the war, Russia’s communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, has blocked or deleted more than 138,000 websites, including BBC’s World Service, after it restarted its shortwave radio broadcasts.
There is also a large percentage of the Russian population that simply does not have access to broadband. Satellite television is especially important for rural regions where broadband penetration is lowest. Many of these areas have been hardest hit by mobilization and are in dire need of learning the truth about Putin’s war.
Stronger offensive action now needed
In any battle, there are offensive and defensive actions, and the information war is no exception.
There have been some notable defensive successes; U.S. and European sanctions against a number of Russian channels have helped to slow the spread of Putin’s genocidal messaging across the West. Yet these laudable efforts largely do not affect Russian viewers, since these channels are still widely available within the Russian Federation.
While I characterize these initiatives as defensive, I do not mean to diminish them in any way; they are completely necessary.
In terms of offensive actions against Russia, the U.S. and Britain have largely relied on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and elements of the BBC World Service. These entities have continued in their attempts to push alternative content into Russia, using news websites and Cold War tools like shortwave radio. RFE/RL has a 2022 budget of $144 million.
The BBC World Service was granted an additional £4.1 million this year to fight Russian disinformation and subsequently resurrected its shortwave radio broadcast. Unfortunately, none of these Western efforts come close to matching Russia’s spend, nor do they address the most powerful medium in Russia – television.
One would think that Western government agencies would be racking their brains to figure out how to break into Putin’s domestic propaganda fortress, and one would think there would be a ready supply of financing for a variety of projects. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case beyond the specific projects within RFE/RL and the BBC.
Significant funding should be allocated to groups that can devise creative methods towards achieving objective news in Russia. Putin spends hundreds of millions, if not billions of euros, to influence people outside of Russia; the West must begin to provide similar sums in response to help bring the truth to ordinary Russians.
We should of course continue to hold Eutelsat and other satellite operators accountable for spreading Russian propaganda around the globe, by sanctioning Kremlin-backed channels, as has been done in the U.S. and EU. We must not let up our defense, but by advocating for access on Eutelsat’s 36°E, we could take the offensive as well.
Putin’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu once famously said that “the day has come when we all have to admit that a word, a camera, a photo, the internet, and information in general have become yet another type of weapon, and yet another component of the armed forces.” Russia views information weapons as just as important as physical ones.
To fight back, Eutelsat is the best starting point. If their management continues to refuse to open 36°E, then sanctions must be applied to force their hand. Western governments should be prepared to step in with funding to exploit this opportunity in Putin’s propaganda monopoly within Russia itself.
Jim Phillipoff is an American media specialist, co-founder of the Denis Diderot Committee, and former CEO of Xtra TV the Ukrainian satellite platform. He is also former CEO of Kyiv Post Media.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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