Switzerland: Voters Reject Proposal to Abolish Public Broadcasting Fees

(Mar. 7, 2018) On March 4, 2018, Swiss voters rejected by a vote of 71.6% to 28.4% a popular initiative to abolish public broadcasting fees. Voter turnout was 54.4%. (Vorlage Nr. 617. Vorläufige amtliche Endergebnisse. Volksinitiative vom 11.12.2015 Ja zur Abschaffung der Radio- und Fernsehgebühren (Abschaffung der Billag-Gebühren) [Proposal No. 617, Preliminary Official Results: Popular Initiative of Dec. 11, 2015 “Yes to the Abolition of Radio and TV Broadcasting Fees (Abolition of Billag-Fees)”], SWISS FEDERAL CHANCELLERY (Mar. 4, 2018).) The initiative would have abolished the public broadcasting fees for radio and TV and prohibited the Swiss Federal government from subsidizing radio and TV providers, operating its own broadcasting stations in peacetime, and regularly auctioning off licenses. The initiative would have also amended article 93 of the Swiss Constitution accordingly. (Bundesbeschluss über die Volksinitiative “Ja zur Abschaffung der Radio- und Fernsehgebühren (Abschaffung der Billag-Gebühren)” [Federal Decision on the Popular Initiative “Yes to the Abolition of the Radio and TV Broadcasting Fees (Abolition of Billag-Fees”)], BUNDESBLATT [BBl.] [FEDERAL GAZETTE] 6237 (2017); BUNDESVERFASSUNG DER SCHWEIZERISCHEN EIDGENOSSENSCHAFT [BV] [FEDERAL CONSTITUTION OF THE SWISS CONFEDERATION] (SWISS CONSTITUTION), Apr. 18, 1999, SYSTEMATISCHE RECHTSSAMMLUNG [SR] [SYSTEMATIC COMPILATION OF LAWS] 101, art. 93, Swiss Government website.)

Background

The Swiss Constitution obligates radio and TV providers to contribute to education and cultural development, the free formation of public opinion, and entertainment, as well as to take the particularities of Switzerland and the needs of the cantons, the Swiss states, into account in their programming. (SWISS CONSTITUTION art. 93, para. 2.) The broadcasting fee is distributed to radio and TV providers that fulfill this public-service mandate. The public broadcaster on a federal level is the  Schweizerische Radio- und Fernsehgesellschaft (SRG) (Swiss Broadcasting Corporation). Other private radio and TV providers fulfill the mandate on a regional and local level. All these companies receive from the federal government licenses that detail the public mandate. (Konzessionierung [Licensing], BUNDESAMT FÜR KOMMUNIKATION (BAKOM) [FEDERAL OFFICE FOR COMMUNICATIONS] (last updated Feb. 1, 2018); Volksabstimmung vom 4. März 2018. Erläuterungen des Bundesrates [Popular Initiative of March 4, 2018. Explanatory Memorandum from the Federal Council] (Explanatory Memorandum), at 17, Swiss Government website).

Swiss private households currently pay a monthly broadcasting fee of CHF37.60 (about US$40.10) for TV and radio together. (Höhe der Empfangsgebühren [Amount of Broadcasting Fees], BAKOM (last updated Dec. 18, 2017).) In 2016, a total of CHF1.37 billion (about US$1.46 billion) was collected in broadcasting fees. 1.24 billion (about US$1.32 billion) were distributed to the SRG and CHF61 million (about US$65 million) to the licensed regional and local stations. The rest of the budget, around 25%, was financed through sponsoring and advertising. (Explanatory Memorandum, supra, at 19.)

Position of the Swiss Federal Council and Parliament

The Federal Council and the Parliament recommended rejecting the initiative. They argued that because the Swiss Constitution obligates radio and TV stations to take the particularities of Switzerland with its federal system, direct democracy, and four languages into account in their programming, it would be impossible to finance such a far-reaching mandate only through sponsoring and advertising. (Id. at 17; SWISS CONSTITUTION art. 93, para. 2.) Furthermore, they warned that approving the initiative would harm media pluralism and the formation of public opinion, because providers would produce only what is profitable, to the detriment of important political and social issues. (Explanatory Memorandum, supra, at 15).

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