TRANSCRIPT OF THE PODCAST INTERVIEW OF MRS EVA BERNEKE, EUTELSAT S.A. CEO PUBLISHED BY THE DANISH NEWSPAPER RADAR MEDIA 4.5.2022

Original in Danish :

Eva Berneke: Om russisk-europæisk krydsild, storpolitik, it-monopoler og Elon Musk

Interview by Peter Christian Bech-Nielsen 

 

You have ended up in a somewhat penitent situation in connection with the war in Ukraine. There was criticism recently because you have some Russian TV providers, NTV+ and Tricolor, who have removed Western news channels, the BBC and CNN, from their TV packages. The criticism against Eutelsat is that you are helping these channels to be censored away in Russia? What do you think of the criticism, is it reasonable ?

  • It was probably us (the EU, ed.), who started by taking the Russian channels, Russia Today and Sputnik, out of all Western bouquets. We did that sanctioned by the EU. We were the ones who started that ball. What the Russians did afterwards was they also peeled off the BBC, so you have to know that when you go into that sort of thing, and those were sanctions that were taken at EU level and that were implemented in law. We deal with that, we're subject to a regulator just like in the telecom world, it regulates everything that's about broadcast, and they said we should take down Russian Today and Sputnik, and then the Russian regulator certainly said they should take down the BBC and CNN as well. On the other hand, there are some German and English channels that are still being carried, just as there are some Russian channels left. The one with the censorship, we probably started ourselves. We said we're neutral and the regulation that's coming, we're implementing it and we're doing it quickly, but if I had to deal with that, then I'd have to have a hundred men studying the channels, because there's not the only consort in the world. We relate to what our regulators say to us because otherwise I have to assess the content in a lot of language.

 

Is that a viable path, do you think we're removing each other's TV channels? It looks like double standards that we say we can't have Russian Today in Europe, and at the same time we want them to watch our channels. But in terms of ideals of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, does it look just as bad in your situation that we remove channels?

  • We relate to the fact that Arcom and the EU have dealt with what should be removed and how. And we're neutral about that. Whether you are politically on one side or the other, the order is the way it is. You could say that we started out, and do you get so frustrated that you're doing the same thing in Russia? Yes, but what, did we expect?

I think it would be super healthy for many Russians to be able to watch CNN or BBC?

  • Yes, I think so too. But the vast majority of Russians who would like to see it here see it on the web with a VPN connection. Most people watch news on the internet, and then there's some flow TV with some in-depth coverage that you can miss, but the news flow comes through a different way. Therefore, there are many other networks that we then have to shut down.

We live in an information society, so is it hard to navigate this when we get some lines of conflict that crash into very practical reality?

  • I relate to the regulation that is being laid out and the authoritarianism that is over our world, and I relate to it one hundred percent and do just as it says. 

 

  • Because I'm not sure I can be smarter than the many talented people who have read the legislation and looked at the content of these channels, so if I were to be smarter than them, I put myself in a situation where I am at the very extreme.  There are a lot of talented people in the EU and in France where this regulator is located, have been through it and said that this is how we do it and that's what we have the legal authority for and we can't go further than that, so I say it's nice that there are some who have taken a position on it for me,  because then I don't have to deal with it myself, because I'm not actually sure I have the competence to do it, and I'd have to have a much larger regulatory team if I had to deal with it.

Could you have refused to follow the guidelines of the Russian authority?

  • This was not the Russian authority, but it was the customers who have the channels who had to follow them. Obviously, then we were going to wave goodbye to some Russian customers, who would then move over to some Russian sattelites or something else?

But that's the situation that, for example, Ecco has also been in, where you've said that you have to say goodbye to that, because that's the cost of war?

  • In fact, we have that debate in many places, for example in Egypt, where our customers know that we are under these different regulatory authorities and that we expect them to live up to their regulation, so it is part of our contractual basis that they relate to the regulatory authorities, because otherwise we would rather not do business with them. So it is with African, Middle Eastern and all sorts of other regimes. That's why I'm really trying to say that right here I'm standing on top of a very solid publicly regulated foundation, which I'm really happy about, because they make it so that I know some rules of the game here in relation to my customers, who have been completely open from day 1, and I think that's really the fairest solution for everyone.

What would it have cost you if you had to throw away your Russian customers?

Russia is about 6-7 percent of our turnover. Is it that big or small, I don't know, but it's not nothing. It's a business we've spent many years building, and we wanted Russian customers without solutions and a lot of Russians without sattelite coverage.

Have you considered whether you were at a point where, on the other hand, you could risk other parts of the business because the Russian leg simply became too expensive to maintain?

  • I've flipped it with my board and asked what they'd like? The French state owns 20 percent, and I've asked them what they'd like us to do. They have said they would like us to follow the authorities' recommendations. It's a wonderful response and a very clear answer from my board about what they want, and I've explained to them what kind of business we have. If you're going to be trusted as a collaborator, and that's what you've said to the Egyptians, the Turks and all sorts of others who have been and asking if we couldn't just do something, if you're going to be a creative collaborator in the future, it's no use that you start saying, such and such,  and change it. Then it is important that you stand on top of this regulatory foundation that the authority gives us.

Transcript and translation by courtesy of John Strand

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Comments by the Denis Diderot Committee

We regret that it is necessary to listen an interview in Danish to be informed on the Eutelsat S.A. CEO position on this important issue. We tried to contact Mrs Berneke and various other persons within Eutelsat S.A. and never receiced answer.

Here are our comments on some statements by Mrs Berneke :

1. On the fact that the prohibition of the international news channels was the result of the EU decision of the 2 March on the ban of RT and Sputinik :

 

May be true, but the Western channels are news channels while RT and Sputnik are mainly propaganda channels, with disinformation and legitimization of the war in Ukraine and more recently outrageous such as  incitement to hatred against the Ukrainian people, calls for World War III "against 40 Nazis States", the use of nuclear weapons,  call to the execution of Western leaders visiting Kyiv or creation of concentration camps for the opponents to the "operation Z". (see for example the records and translation by the US journalist Julia Davis).  By establishing a wrong symetry, Mrs Berneke is justifying the Russian position. 

2. On the fact that Eutelsat S.A. needs a legal decision to switch off the Russian platforms

 

We agree with this legal analysis. However, as far as we know, Mrs Berneke has taken no initiative to ask the EUTELSAT IGO, the EU ot the French authorities to help her company to clean the situation.

 

But respecting law is not the only criteria for a wise manager. Ethical considerations should also be taken into consideration, as demonstrated by the recent resignation of various Danish executives of members of the board of companies still active in Russia?

 

On "neutrality", the key word used by Mrs Berneke, we invite her to mediate the statement by Elie Wiesel in his reception speech of Nobel Prize for Peace : “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.” 

3. On a "vast majority" of Russian beeing able to receive western news through Internet and VPN

It is true that educated, urban, young Russian peoples can access Western news through Internet and VPN. But this is not a "vast majority". A 2021 study was indicating that 62 % of the Russian population is informed mainly through central television. The vast majority of Russian people does not use Internet and VPN to be informed and rely only to the main Russian channels. Television has a key role in the Kremlin propaganda, including to justify a possible nuclear attack. (See, for example, Le Monde, 5.5.2022)

If Internet is so important, what the sense for Eutelsat S.A. to run a satellite business and for the Russian authorities to prohibit Western channels ? 

4. On the fact that Eutelsat S.A. Russian customers (namely NTV+ and Trikolor) had just to follow the new Russian law. 

This is not what they explain to their subscribers on their respective websites : they claim that the switch-off was a decision of the rightsholders, which is clearly untrue for most of them. 

5. "German and English channels that are still being carried"

We are not aware of this. There are about 40 western channels still carried out by the two Russian platforms on Eutelsat 36 E satellites. They are from different origin (FR, LU, NL, UK, US) and are entertainment, music or porn channels, no news channels. We are not aware of German channels currently offered to the Russian public. However RT DE (as well as RT News) is still distributed by NTV+ through Eutelsat satellite despite the EU decision of the EU.

6. "The French state owns 20 percent, and I've asked them what they'd like us to do. They have said they would like us to follow the authorities' recommendations."

The French State is indeed the main shareholder of Eutelsat Eurocommuncations S.A. (the holding company owner of Eutelsat S.A.), in alliance with other French shareholders. 

France has a key role to play on this issue, as main shareholders, as regulator (Ministry of Industry for space activity, ARCOM for audiovisual communication) and as country in the role of Presidency of the European Council. (The RT/Sputnik decision was signed by Mr. Y. Le Drian, Minister of Foreign Affairs, as representative of the French Presidency).

The Denis Diderot Committee has sent the file to President Macron's cabinet, to the cabinets of Mr. Le Drian and Mrs Bachelot, Minister of Culture and Communication, to their respective administration as well as to the ARCOM. We have receive no answer so far. At bthis date, Not a single French media is reported on our action and press releases.

Conclusions

Our perception is that Mrs Berneke,  her board and probably France give, on this issue, priority to business interest rather that on the defense of human rights, freedom of expression and free flow of information. This leads Eutelsat S.A. to be on list of shame established by Yale University. We recommend to Mrs Berneke and to her board to read the article by Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld,  "Businesses that refuse to leave Russia are experiencing the greatest costs" (Washington Post, 26.4.2022). 

We note that Mrs Berneke does not comment on the technical feasibility of our proposal : use the Eutelat 36 E satellites to provide 15 millions of Russian TV households with international news channels allowing the large Russian audience to access to diverses news, pictures and analysis on the war in Ukraine and its international consequences.

We appreciate that the interview of Mrs Berneke has resulted in the first statement by a politician on the issue. The media spokesman of the Danish Social-Democrat party (currently at the governement, Kasper Sand Kjær believes that the Danish top manager should reconsider his decision to stay in Russia: "I think everyone should decide for themselves which side you want to stand on in the story. I do not believe that one can get through the time we are in right now by saying that one is neutral." According to the media spokesperson, the French company's satellites play an important role in the war. "They are helping to broadcast Putin's war propaganda, and therefore it is my call to stop cooperating with the Russian television platforms" ​. 

We hope that more European politicians will take care of the case and push for sanctions in order to allow Mrs Berneke to clean the situation. 

Dr. André Lange

Coordinator of the Denis Diderot Committee
7 May 2022.