PARIS—Judges in Paris will decide on Nov. 17 whether one of the world’s largest satellite operators should be investigated for politically-motivated meddling with a client’s broadcast in a case that has taken over a year to get to court.
The Paris Commerce Court held a hearing on Nov. 5 to look at the France-based satellite company Eutelsat’s actions last year that resulted in the termination of the signal of one of their clients, New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), which broadcasts over mainland China.
Before using Eutelsat in 2004, NTDTV had previously lost contracts broadcasting over China with several satellite companies because of its penchant for reporting on topics deemed “sensitive” by Chinese authorities, including ethnic violence in Xinjiang, the poison milk scandal, the persecution of Falun Gong, and other human rights and religious freedom abuses.
International conventions on nonprofit broadcasters stipulate that satellite owners should provide a platform for them to reach countries around the world that they could not otherwise.
In 2005 Eutelsat refused to renew its contract with NTDTV, but later capitulated after international pressure.
In June 2008 NTDTV says that Eutelsat, with the excuse of technical difficulties, again terminated its broadcast into China. Eutelsat said one of their satellites lost power and the company needed to shut down several transponders, one of which carried NTDTV’s signal.
Groups concerned with press freedom saw it as an opportunistic attempt for Eutelsat to ingratiate themselves with the Chinese authorities.
“Eutelsat claims it was forced to suspend NTDTV on 16 June because of a technical problem but a recorded conversation with an employee of Eutelsat show it was a premeditated, politically-motivated decision violating the free flow of information and the convention under which Eutelsat operates,” the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Boarders wrote.
“NTDTV’s broadcasts irked the Chinese government because, thanks to this satellite, they could be freely received in tens of millions of Chinese homes. Their suspension just a few weeks ahead of the Olympic Games looks like a favour provided by Eutelsat with the aim of obtaining new deals.”
In July 2009 NTDTV petitioned the Commerce Court in Paris to appoint experts to investigate Eutelsat’s actions. If the broadcaster can show there is merit to the case, the court will then assign an expert to investigate why Eutelsat stopped carrying the signal.
The night before the first hearing on Oct. 13 Eutelsat lawyers submitted boxes of defense materials to the NTDTV legal team. They requested it be postponed to Nov. 5 to give them time to review the materials before the case could proceed.
NTDTV legal counsel William Bourdon said that he was confident in their case. Eutelsat’s lawyers claimed they were not afraid of an expert investigation, he said, but it was something they “definitely don’t want” to deal with.
“If Eutelsat is not afraid of an expert investigation and NTDTV will shoulder the independent investigation costs, then why would Eutelsat spend so much effort to obstruct the investigation?” Bourdon said.
NTDTV’s French spokesperson Isabelle Chaigneau said they were pleased with the trial thus far. “Our lawyers have a very convincing presentation and strong argument. I hope French law will safeguard justice, and reveal the real reason why Eutelsat disconnected NTDTV’s signal.”
Eutelsat lawyers declined to comment after the hearing.