- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Republic of Georgia is charging a Paris-based satellite provider with caving in to Russian pressure after the company blocked a Georgia-based Russian-language station from broadcasting into the Caucasus region.

“After eliminating most of the Russian-language independent media inside its borders, Russia’s attempt to silence the first Caucasian channel in collaboration with the state-owned French firm represents an alarming precedent of international political censorship,” Georgia’s ambassador to Washington, Batu Kutelia, said in an interview with The Washington Times.

On Monday, Georgia’s public-television corporation brought a suit against Eutelsat, the Paris-based satellite provider that kicked the Russian-language news channel First Caucasian off the air on Jan. 15. The case seeks to force the First Caucasian satellite channel back on what is known as the W7 satellite, which reaches most of Russia’s citizens.

Eutelsat counters that it only broadcast the First Caucasian channel on a “test” basis and will offer another satellite to broadcast the channel to the Georgians. “We were broadcasting the channel on a test basis. The test terminated according to the dates agreed in advance with the channel,” Vanessa O’Connor, head of corporate communications for Eutelsat, said in an interview.

The lawsuit against Eutelsat highlights recent strains in Georgia’s relationship with France, the country that brokered a cease-fire to the border skirmish between Georgia and Russia over the disputed Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A French national fund owns 25 percent of Eutelsat.

To this day, Russian troops are positioned in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but France has nonetheless sought to thaw relations with Moscow. France and Russia are in talks to sell a Mistral class amphibious ship to the Russian navy, making France the first NATO country to sell advanced military technology to Moscow.

Raphael Glucksmann, a senior adviser to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, said the decision to take First Caucasian off the air effectively gave a monopoly to the media subsidiary of the Russian oil company Gazprom.

“Eutelsat is giving to Gazprom media and Intersputnik a monopoly on satellite broadcasting on Russian antennas,” he said. “And by doing so, it is becoming a tool of the Kremlin censorship.”

Ms. O’Connor disputed this characterization on two counts. First, she said, Eutelsat’s recent contract with Intersputnik, a Russian satellite provider, was in the works prior to the company’s deal with Georgian Public Broadcasting. She also said that Eutelsat was offering to broadcast First Caucasian on a comparable satellite band called the W2a.

Maia Bichikashvili, the deputy general director of Georgian Public Broadcasting contested this point. “The contract was very clear: Our channel should be broadcast on W7, on the 36th degree,” she said.

“Being broadcast on W2a would require the Russian-speaking audience to buy new and different antennas in order to have access to the First Caucasian channel. It would be expensive, difficult and, more important, very dangerous, especially in regions like North Caucasus,” she said. “Our channel would be the only one in Russian on W2a, and those who have different antennas would automatically be identified by [the Russian security service] as our viewers. They … would be directly in danger.”

The First Caucasian station is not without controversy. The channel features a talk show hosted by the widow of former Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev. Mrs. Dudayev paints a portrait of her guests as she interviews them.

Katia Kotrikadze, the head of First Caucasian, said her channel “is the first TV channel in the post-Soviet region which is trying to show the alternative view to Russian state-sponsored media.”

The spat with Eutelsat is not the first time the satellite provider has been accused of caving to pressure from authoritarian states. In 2008, Eutelsat stopped broadcasting a Falun Gong station in China known as NDTV.

Ms. O’Connor said in that case her company did not violate any contract with the station and still allows NDTV to broadcast on satellites over Europe. She said the broadcasting into China was discontinued for technical reasons.

Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who has provided advice to the Falun Gong and NDTV, said he was looking forward to the Georgian lawsuit against Eutelsat.

“I am delighted for this lawsuit, because this will open the door for discovery of documents over what they did to NDTV in China. It will establish a pattern and practice on the part of this company. If the Georgian lawyers are any good, Eutelsat is going to settle the case. I think Eutelsat will stop at nothing to prevent discovery on the NDTV case.”

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