Ukraine has threatened to sanction French satellite operator Eutelsat over claims it is broadcasting Russian “war propaganda” to millions of homes across Europe.
The National Council for Radio and Television in Ukraine on Thursday warned Eutelsat it will block its services if it continues working with Russian TV channels.
Eutelsat, which will soon partly be owned by the British taxpayer, carries Russian satellite TV packages from NTV+ and Tricolor, both of which have been accused of transmitting pro-Kremlin news.
Eutelsat’s own website boasts that its satellite signals reach 15 million Russian homes, while 6.7pc of its revenues, roughly €76m (£65m), comes from Russian TV.
These TV channels have carried statements from Russian news hosts and politicians calling for mass killings of Ukranians. In one broadcast, state Duma member Alexei Zhuravlyov said 5pc of Ukranians are “incurable” and called for two million to be “denazified, that means destroyed”.
In another show on Rossiya 1, pro-Kremlin firebrand Vladimir Solovyov compared the war in Ukraine to deworming a cat. Other broadcasts have called for nuclear strikes against the west, including Britain.
One Rossiya 1 show in April featured panellist Dmitry Kiselyov warning Russia's new submarine missiles could “plunge the British Isles into the depths of the sea”. At the same time, Eutelsat has halted broadcasts of some Western channels, such as the BBC, in Russia.
The letter, believed to have been personally handed to Eutelsat chief Eva Berneke by a member of Ukrainian embassy staff, threatens to sour relations between Paris and Kyiv.
“We will be forced to initiate the blocking of any of its activities in the territory of Ukraine,” Ohla Herasymiuk, chair of the broadcasting regulator, warns in the letter.
Eutelsat has been accused of broadcasting Russian TV channels that “systemically express support for the aggressive actions of the Russian government in Ukraine”, including efforts to “incite genocide of the Ukranian people”, the letter said.
A Eutelsat spokesman declined to comment.
The satellite operator, valued at €1.9bn, has faced repeated demands from French campaigners to “stop bloodcasting”, including protests outside its head office and demands from MPs and top European parliamentarians to remove the channels.
Founded in 1977, it operates a network of TV and communications satellites orbiting thousands of miles above the Earth. These beam satellite TV packages across Europe and Africa. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eutelsat expanded across Eastern Europe, providing broadcasting services and pay TV channels to Russia.
The company has pursued what its chief executive describes as a policy of “neutrality”.
It has claimed the TV packages it distributes throughout Russia are mostly children’s TV and sports. It has previously taken actions to block certain TV broadcasts, such as banning RT and removing Russian TV channel MIR due to sanctions and demands from regulators. The company insists it has always obeyed all sanctions in relation to the channels it broadcasts.
Eutelsat has been previously accused of taking a channel off air that was critical of the Kremlin.
In 2010, following the South Ossetia war between Russia and Georgia, it stopped broadcasting a pro-Georgian channel, Kanal PIK, and replaced the broadcasts with Russian TV packages.
Eutelsat denied the decision was due to pressure from Moscow and won a court case dismissing the Kanal PIK’s claims.
But its decision to continue to broadcast two major Russian clients amid the war in Ukraine has heaped fresh pressure on the French satellite company.
Writing in Le Monde, Ukrainian culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said this week: “Even the unprecedented sanctions imposed in 2022 have not put an end to its cooperation with the Russians. This powerful satellite operator continues to broadcast Russian propaganda channels.”
Last week, 39 MEPs wrote to the European Commission urging action to stop Eutelsat’s broadcasts. They said: “Eutelsat… contributes to fuelling the Russian public’s support to Putin's war and prevents them from having access to independent news sources.”
André Lange, a Belgian academic who has campaigned to stop Eutelsat’s broadcasts in Russia, said: “Is it normal that a French company of which the French state is a leading shareholder and the regulator continue to broadcast the radio and TV channels of a terrorist state?”
The dispute also threatens to ensnare the British Government and UK state-backed satellite operator OneWeb.
OneWeb, which was rescued from bankruptcy by Boris Johnson in 2020 in a $1bn deal, is due to merge with Eutelsat. As part of the deal, both the British Government and the French state will remain shareholders of the combined company, and have seats on its board. The agreement reportedly required the personal sign-off of French President Emmanuel Macron.
So far, the Government has remained silent over Eutelsat’s Russian business.
Eutelsat’s continued operations in Russia come despite OneWeb having its satellites impounded by the Kremlin in April, and its chief executive being banned from the country. A OneWeb spokesman declined to comment.
If the merger goes ahead, it could lead to a situation in which a business partly owned by the British Government is sanctioned by Ukraine, despite the UK ostensibly being one of Kyiv’s closest allies in its struggle against Russia.
The letter from Ukrainian regulators does not name OneWeb, but states: “If the Eutelsat company fails to manage or stop provision of services for retransmission… we will be forced to initiate the procedure of imposing sanctions”.
MPs have been privately critical of the deal and Eutelsat’s commitment to its Russian business will only fuel concerns. One Conservative MP said: “This merger was decided when we had no Prime Minister by a limited number of civil servants who did not take into account of losing a precious global spectrum asset to France.
“Perhaps Ukraine’s concerns should also be taken into consideration in the hast terms of this deal.”
Another Conservative MP called the deal a “huge mistake”. “The French will be laughing,” they said.