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POLITICS

Weapon of mass distortion. How Russian TV channels bypass sanctions and continue to broadcast in EU

Iva Tsoy

In November, the German Center for Monitoring, Analysis, and Strategies (CeMAS) published the results of a survey suggesting that support for conspiracy interpretations of Russia's war against Ukraine has increased significantly in Germany since April 2022. In particular, about 44% of Germans agree (or partly agree) that “Putin is a fighter against the global elite that secretly runs the world”. Despite the European Union having banned Russian news channels from broadcasting in Europe, Russian propaganda, like its audience, easily circumvents these restrictions. Russian-speaking Europeans share tips on social media on how to reconfigure a satellite dish or view Russian channels via a set-top box. However, the most effective platform for propagandists is still YouTube because tracing and blocking all offending accounts is simply impossible.

ALL CARDS
  • Satellite dishes

  • Set-top boxes

  • Social media

  • Video hosting sites

  • Alternative ways of combating propaganda

Satellite dishes

Late in October, police in the Latvian city of Jelgava detained a man who was installing illegal television equipment and had provided access to banned Russian channels for a hundred or so households in and around Jelgava. During the searches, the police seized his television receivers, code cards, and other professional equipment. He was charged with illegal business activities and is currently awaiting trial. In Lithuania, the sales of satellite and television antennas increased as early as in March. The demand has particularly grown in the vicinity of Vilnius, closer to the Belarusian border, where Russian speakers still account for a large share of the population.

French satellite operator Eutelsat switched off the NTV-Mir channel on its HotBird satellite in August. NTV-Mir was the last Russian news channel to broadcast to Europe from a European satellite. However, Eutelsat continues to broadcast Russian state-owned channels to Russia, the occupied territories of Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Baltic States, the Middle East, and North Africa.

The human rights group Reporters Without Borders appealed the decision of the French broadcasting regulator Arcom, which had allowed Eutelsat to continue transmitting Russian TV via French satellites. The complaint was based on a report by the Denis Diderot Committee on Kremlin propaganda in France, and the initiative was joined by several MEPs who published an open letter to EU Foreign Minister Joseph Borrel. So far, Eutelsat has turned a deaf ear to these demands: as we have repeatedly written, the French company has a long history of doing lucrative business in Russia, with its Russian subsidiary managed by Nikolai Orlov, the son of former Russian Ambassador to France Alexander Orlov.

French satellite operator Eutelsat has a long history of doing lucrative business in Russia

But even after European satellites have disabled Russian channels, you can reconfigure the dish to Russian satellites Express-AM8 and Express-80. Instructions abound on social media and YouTube. Thus, Eugene Kucher, a native of the Sumy region of Ukraine who now lives in Moldova close to the Romanian border, has posted at least 15 video guides on his channel since the beginning of the war. The rest of his content is streams on politics, in which he talks about how Ukraine “bombed the Donbas for eight years”. However, most of these guides are posted by ordinary Russian-speaking TV technicians, who have many customers looking to set up Russian TV.

Configuration tips are also available on forums, for example, for Russian-speaking Germans. Satellite dishes are available on AliExpress or even in “Russian stores” in Germany – or can be ordered from long-haul truckers in Russia. Some of the recent immigrants have brought their plates from home in their car. So far, only Latvia has introduced punishment for illegal viewing of banned TV channels, with the maximum penalty set at a fine of 700 euros.

However, recoding the satellite dish yourself is difficult, and calling in a technician is expensive and a bit of a hassle. A much more popular option is to choose from a variety of applications and set-top boxes providing access to TV channels over the Internet.

Set-top boxes

On June 6, the German video service Kartina TV, which was among Europe's largest re-transmitters of Russian TV channels until recently, announced on its website that it has disabled Russian TV channels Rossiya RTR/RTR Planeta, Rossiya 24/Rossiya 24, and TV Center/TVCi/TVC. As the reason, the service cited the adoption of the sixth anti-Russian sanctions package by the EU, which outlawed the broadcasting of these channels. Soon the video service updated the Frequently Asked Questions section of its forum with answers to such customer requests as “Give me back my disabled channels” and “Remove Ukrainian channels”.

FAQs of the Kartina TV forum
FAQs of the Kartina TV forum
Kartina TV

Kartina TV is a set-top box that uses original software with pre-installed channels and streaming platforms. Such video services abound, with some registered in jurisdictions that cannot be called transparent. We managed to connect to one such service and found almost all Russian news channels are on the list: Channel One, Russia 1, NTV, REN TV, and so on. The service positions itself as “the official operator of Russian TV abroad” and informs on its website that it “has licenses to show all channels in the Channel One family”. The contacts feature phone numbers with a German area code, despite the company being registered in Cyprus.

Applications of Russian TV news channels are blocked in Google Play Market and AppStore, but an Android-run set-top box allows for direct installation from an APK file through the file manager. Furthermore, there are many Russian-language Telegram channels featuring DIY guides on how to set up Russian channels through a set-top box at home. In addition, despite removing official Russian TV channel applications, AppStore and Google Play Market have left all the others, and if you enter the right query from any European country, you will still find many applications with Russian state-owned channels. Their developers appear to have nothing to do with Russia, as they offer similar services for access to television in other countries.

Alexei Shvarts, the former coordinator of Navalny's headquarters in Kurgan who now lives in Germany and continues to cooperate with the Anti-Corruption Foundation, believes it is hard to eradicate Android set-top boxes broadcasting Russian channels:

“You can roll out a third-party app with the same channels on any Android device and the broadcasting will continue. It would take a lot of work to get all apps to stop showing Russian TV. Whereas Google Play Market and AppStore have the official mechanism for this, unofficial installation apps for Android are hard to control. That said, you would still have to buy a set-top box and dig around in it, which is not for everyone.”

Apart from that, a scheme called “cardsharing” is gaining popularity in Europe – a method that enables the use of several independent receivers for watching pay-per-view satellite or cable TV channels with a single access card. All you need is an Internet connection. A Russian business or individual purchases satellite or cable TV access and resells it to other people, in Russia or abroad. A person in a European country buys an ordinary set-top box, goes to the website of a Russian company providing cardsharing services, chooses a subscription plan (around 3-5 euros per month), and receives a set of Russian TV access credentials. The Insider found many websites offering cardsharing services for watching Russian channels. The payments on such websites are processed through Kazakh or Belarusian banks, which are not under sanctions.

Social media

RT's German-language YouTube channel was deleted for fakes about mass vaccination deaths in September 2021. Late in May 2022, a similar fate befell the German RT channel in TikTok. ZAK, the German regulator, blocked RT DE, which was broadcasting out of Serbia, back in early February, before the full-on invasion, but the German authorities are not too fervent in their combat against Russian propaganda online and on smart TV. Those who want to watch German-language RT stories in Germany can just browse the mirror of the old website. Germany, France, Finland, and a few more European countries are also yet to block the websites of Channel One, Russia 1, NTV, and other Russian news channels.

The Insider discovered a host of German-language Telegram channels and chat rooms spreading pro-Russian propaganda. Their interrelation is hardly a secret, considering that they promote one another. For example, RT newscasts that appear in one of them daily are distributed across other channels. Another channel posts announcements and videos of pro-Russian rallies in Germany. The latter even has a separate chat room to talk politics, a channel with memes, a Putin fan club, and the Free-People website.

Most of these Telegram channels date back to pre-pandemic times. The most popular one, Anti-Spiegel with 95,000 subscribers, was set up in May 2019. Anti-Spiegel is run by a prominent pro-Kremlin propagandist, German national Thomas Röper, who has been living and working in St. Petersburg since the late 1990s. Not only does Röper broadcast his content via Telegram, but he also has a website, a YouTube channel (over 100,000 subscribers), Twitter, and Facebook. However, judging by the frequency of updates, Telegram remains his main outlet. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the blogger was actively spreading fakes about vaccination, and with the beginning of Russia's full-scale war with Ukraine he turned into a pro-Russian war correspondent who travels around the Donbas and exposes “the Nazi junta’s atrocities”. Berlin-based CeMAS Institute calls Anti-Spiegel one of the most popular “alternative” news sources in German-language Telegram channels and groups dedicated to conspiracy theories. Yet none of Röper 's blogs have been blocked so far.

Despite Telegram being far from the most popular messenger in Europe, its share grew significantly during the pandemic, at least in Germany. Today, according to various surveys, it fluctuates between 15% and 18% of respondents. German TV channel ZDF expressed concern over the matter in a broadcast:

“Originally programmed to allow dissidents to communicate securely in autocratic regimes, Telegram has evolved into a haven for extremists: pandemic deniers, right-wing extremists, and even criminal organizations can communicate largely undisturbed there.”

German authorities say that, despite numerous requests to remove extremist content, Telegram simply ignores them. According to Shvarts, Germans themselves consider Telegram a “Darknet”, and it is mostly used by immigrants from CIS countries.

The Russian social network VK (formerly VKontakte), which is overseen by the son of the first deputy head of the Presidential Administration, Vladimir Kirienko, remains a stronghold for propaganda. Some countries, including Latvia, have blocked the VK website.

Video hosting sites

YouTube is still a major outlet for Russian propagandists. Once RT was deleted, its daily news reels became scattered across a multitude of small private channels that are harder to trace and remove. Their task is to promote videos to the top, using bots to gain views and comments, so that as many YouTube users as possible watch Solovyov and the likes of him, says Alexei Shvarts. The channels of “grassroots propagandists” like Yuriy Podolyak and Anatoly Shariy are also still out there. Although they are regularly blocked and spring up again under new names, YouTube recommendations make it easy for Putin's supporters to find their way back to these outlets. For example, Podolyaka's new channel, which was created only three weeks ago, already has 40,000 subscribers.

As The Insider discovered, Russian TV channels can pay for the placement of their broadcasts on YouTube channels – for instance, those dedicated to game streaming. Thus, there is a channel called Ura Igra (“hurrah game”), which, according to its Steam profile, purportedly belongs to an Oleg Lebedev from “Sverdlovsk, Russia”. (Sverdlovsk is the Soviet name for Novosibirsk, and Lebedev's VK profile has been blocked for “suspicious activity”.) The channel has been around since 2017 and has over 30,000 subscribers; this fall, it suddenly switched to non-stop broadcasts of 60 Minut, a talk show by propagandists Olga Skabeeva and Evgeny Popov. In October, Ura Igra also launched a Telegram channel for posting links to Russian news on the Smotrim platform. In its VK community, Ura Igra has a price list with advertising rates, so this placement may have been arranged on a commercial basis.

RT shows continue to be distributed in Europe via Odysée and Rumble, which are notorious for their lack of moderation. During the pandemic, both services became a haven for COVID dissidents (the number of visitors to Rumble surged 31-fold from 2020 to 2021). Both platforms currently broadcast RT content. And while Odysée eventually agreed to remove RT France's broadcasts (as The Insider learned from the Denis Diderot Committee coordinator André Lange), the head of Rumble, Canadian entrepreneur Chris Pawlowski, publicly refused to do so, tweeting that he would disconnect France from his video-hosting service. It was the French government that demanded that Rumble block Russian news resources, but the content of the video hosting platform is accessible from any country in the European Union.

Alternative ways of combating propaganda

Despite the Rumble situation, André Lange notes that it is easier to secure cooperation from digital platforms than satellite operators or national broadcast regulators. He cites the example of Twitter, which recently blocked an account for spreading false information about the grandfather of European Commission President Ursula von den Leyen being a Nazi. (A similar fake about German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was launched in April by the Russia 1 television channel.) However, Twitter is notorious for making loud announcements about blocking accounts with aggressive remarks about Ukrainians – and failing to follow through.

Karina Urbanaviciute, a project manager at Debunk EU, an international independent organization researching disinformation and media literacy, agrees with Lange. Urbanaviciute recalls an initiative by US and Australian anti-extremism organizations that got Facebook to automatically link to Life After Hate and EXIT Australia – NGOs that offer help in finding safe escapes from extremist groups – when people query the social network for specific words and terms related to violent extremism (such as «Heil Hitler»). According to the researcher, this is the key to success in countering Russian propaganda: instead of forbidding people to watch, focus on how they process information:

«We have to understand that blocking everything is simply impossible. Therefore, in addition to controlling the information space, we should also foster media literacy, starting from school, as Finland does, for example. Both methods are time-consuming and will not bear fruit until five or ten years from now. As for the elderly and the impact propaganda has on them, it's even more complicated. Studies have shown that people believe in conspiracy theories because it makes them feel comfortable. Similarly, many people take comfort in watching Russian channels because the anchors confirm what they already believe. Something has to happen to make it uncomfortable to stay in this bubble.”

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