Reporters Without Borders Confirms Satellite Company Bowed to Chinese Regime

By Shaoshao Chen
Shaoshao Chen
Shaoshao Chen
July 10, 2008 Updated: July 21, 2008
 (Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images)
(Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images)

A recorded conversation has revealed a French-based satellite company cracked under pressure from the Chinese Communist regime and stopped broadcasting a TV station that Chinese authorities consider "sensitive."

The conversation was recorded between an investigator from the journalist rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and a representative from Eutelsat's Bejing office.

The investigator contacted Eutelsat claiming to be from China's Central Propaganda Department inquiring how the satellite company was faring under international pressure to resume broadcasting of New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), a U.S. based Chinese Television Network.

On June 16, satellite broadcasting giant Eutelsat announced its suspension of NTDTV's broadcast into China due to serious technical errors. However, rights groups and NTDTV have suspected the company of bowing to Chinese pressure due to the television station's extensive coverage of China's human rights abuses.

In the recording, the representative told RSF the cancellation was premeditated. Under pressure from Chinese authorities, the satellite company decided to shut down the transponder carrying NTDTV's signal. The company then claimed that the broadcast stopped due to serious technical errors.

The conversation happened on June 23. Both the investigator and the Eutelsat employee's names were withheld by RSF out of concern for their saftey.

"It was our company's CEO in France who decided to stop NTDTV's signal," said the employee. "It was because we got repeated complaints and reminder from the Chinese government."

The employee continued to tell the interlocutor that it was due to business prospects with China that Eutelsat decided to cancel NTDTV. Thales, the French company that manufactures Eutelsat's satellites, had recently produced Zhongxing-9, a satellite commissioned by the Chinese government to provide coverage of the Olympic Games. China has also agreed to use its Long March rocket to launch Eutelsat's satellites.

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A Wall Street Journal article in April reported that Eutelsat has for years "tried to penetrate the Chinese market and launch contracts are widely seen as one way to help reach that goal."

However, despite Eutelsat's efforts to claim a slice of China's market, the Chinese government, which controls all media broadcasts, has been less than willing. According to the Eutelsat employee, Chinese authorities had promised to extend talks with Eutelsat after NTDTV's broadcasts have been shut down.

"Two years ago, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television kept saying the same thing over and over: 'Stop that TV station before we begin to talk,'" said the employee. "All we want is a gesture from China… yet the Chinese ministries or bureaus, none of them offered any gesture."

The employee revealed that Eutelsat has been seeking a contract with China for years. However, despite cancelling NTDTV, Chinese authorities have instead awarded a $1 billion contract with Eutelsat's largest competitor, the American-based Intelsat.

NTDTV spokesperson, Carrie Hung commented on the phone call. "The conversation recorded by RSF shows that the chairman of Eutelsat, Mr. Berretta, made a deliberate decision so as to gain favor from Beijing and to satisfy Beijing's long-standing demand of shutting down NTDTV's satellite broadcasts into China as a precondition for any business deals," said Hung.

"This is an unconscionable abuse and a violation of Eutelsat's own charter. We now call on the international community, Eutelsat's Board of Directors and share holders, the media and all supporters of free flow of information to call for reversing Mr. Berretta's unprincipled decision."

Eutelsat's suspension of NTDTV's broadcasts happened on a previous occasion. In 2005, Eutelsat dropped NTDTV's contract. According to the Wall Street Journal Eutelsat refused to renew the contract in an attempt to gain business from the Chinese regime. However under public and political pressure, NTDTV's contract was renewed and broadcasts into China resumed.

Calls made to Eutelsat for comment have gone unanswered.