Was Europe’s leading TV satellite operator, Eutelsat, censoring again in violation of article 3 of the convention under which it was created when it recently refused to carry the Georgian public TV station Pervyi Kakvazkyi on its W7 satellite? That is the question that a French court will begin to address on 22 March.
Examination of the relations between Eutelsat, a company headquartered in France, and the Georgian public broadcaster GPB raises several questions.
Why did Eutelsat suddenly back off after sending GPB a contract to start broadcasting Pervyi Kakvazkyi on 31 January? Was it linked to the new lucrative contract it signed on 15 January with the Russian operator Intersputnik, a long-standing commercial partner? Intersputnik is also a client of a Kremlin-controlled Gazprom offshoot that is one of Russia’s most important media groups.
Despite Eutelsat’s denials, several aspects deserve attention:
A Russian-language station intended to be broadcast throughout the Caucasus, including Russia, Pervyi Kakvazkyi was clearly seen by the Kremlin as new Georgian offensive in the public relations war being waged between the two countries.
Georgia never hid the fact that Pervyi Kakvazkyi was meant to compete with Russia’s media by offering an alternative viewpoint. It was billed as “the first Russian-language TV station in the Caucasus that is not controlled by the Kremlin,” one that would be able to tell “the truth.” Its top presenters even include Alla Dudayeva, the widow of the late Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev.
The explanations offered by Eutelsat for terminating retransmission of Pervyi Kakvazkyi are not very clear. Initially, the operator referred to the need for an “urgent discussion” about the station’s content. This would have been illegal as satellite operators are not supposed to have any say in the programming of the stations they carry.
Eutelsat’s representatives then said W7 was being threatened by “interference” from Pervyi Kakvazkyi’s signal and they suggested that the solution was to encrypt it. But this option was quickly abandoned and, according to GPB, Eutelsat finally said the only solution was to move Pervyi Kakvazkyi to another satellite.
This would have meant that the station would not have covered the same geographical area. It would also have meant its viewers would have to install antennae. GPB refused and Pervyi Kakvazkyi’s transmission by Eutelsat was terminated.
Eutelsat’s behaviour is all the more suspicious for the fact that it was involved in a very similar case in 2008, when it used the pretext of “technical problems” to stop carrying the New York-based Chinese-language TV station NTDTV under pressure from Beijing.
Another case concerns the BBC’s Farsi-language television station, BBC Persian TV. Although it was Iran that was accused of repeatedly jamming and interfering with its signal, Eutelsat stopped carrying the station at the start of the year, yielding to political and commercial pressure from a government that constantly violates its citizens’ basic rights, including the right to be informed.
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