“If the European authorities impose new sanctions against Russian channels, we will stop their broadcast,” the company said. It added: “At this stage, no regulator or other competent authority has asked us to stop broadcasting private Russian television channels in Russia.”
Phillipoff and Lange have been turning their appeal to politicians, but with minimal effect. “We sent letters to all French members of the European Parliament,” Lange says. “Not a single answer.”
How, exactly, Paris or Brussels might force Eutelsat to block those Russian channels is an open question. Lange and Phillipoff say that if the European Union can ban the English-language Sputnik and RT stations from their airwaves, 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 they would ban three new broadcasters “in whatever shape or form, be it on cable, via satellite, on the internet, or via smartphone apps.”
Politico has reported that those three broadcasters are Russian-language news networks that reach Europe, with some help from Eutelsat’s satellites.
Eutelsat told WIRED, “We are aware of the European Union’s intention to sanction three Russian channels, two of which are broadcast on our satellites, and we are ready to immediately cease broadcasting them as soon as the corresponding European regulation is published.”
The United States recently slapped sanctions on three Russian-language TV stations, including NTV (the flagship station of provider NTV+), after concluding that they are “spreading disinformation to bolster Putin’s war.” Those sanctions are likely to have an impact on their foreign revenue, but not on their Russian operations.
Going after the satellites themselves would be a hugely disruptive escalation. Moscow and Kyiv are already taking aim at each others’ satellite communications.
Western intelligence agencies say, in the hours before its invasion, Russian hackers took aim at American satellite provider Viasat. “Although the primary target is believed to have been the Ukrainian military, other customers were affected, including personal and commercial internet users,” the UK’s National Cyber Center said in a joint statement with the US and EU.
Earlier this week, just ahead of Russia’s Victory Day celebrations—which offered Moscow a prime opportunity to project strength amidst its stalled war—the State Special Communications Service of Ukraine announced that “[television] broadcast from the Russian satellite to the occupied Ukrainian regions was unexpectedly turned off.”
European cooperation isn’t limited to Eutelsat’s satellite television. Eutelsat owns two subsidiaries in Russia, including home internet provider Konnect. In turn, the Russian state satellite operator owns a small stake in Eutelsat itself. (Corporate documents say most of tje 3.62 percent ownership stake corresponds to 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. Its members include the Czech Republic, Romania, Germany, and Ukraine. In 2020, France announced its intention to join Intersputnik.
Intersputnik managed part of the Soviet Union’s satellite fleet, before being privatized after the fall of the USSR. Moscow’s influence on the organization is fairly apparent: The chair of its board is a senior 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 satellite service, underpinning not just television, but internet service, military communications, and geospatial imaging.
The Diderot Committee’s Lange and Phillipoff hope that this current fight could enable more open flows of information in the future—that’s what informs the tongue-in-cheek name of their group. As its website explains: “On July 6, 1762, just nine days after the coup d’état of June 28 that put her on the throne, Catherine II invited the French philosopher Denis Diderot to come to Russia in order to publish L’encyclopédie, which had been banned in Paris. Diderot accepted her invitation and arrived in St. Petersburg in October of 1773.”
Had Russia not pushed back against France’s censorship, the Encyclopédie, one of the most important works of the Enlightenment, may have never been published.