Should Switzerland have a new tax to finance the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, or a new radio and TV fee system that accounts for listening and viewing habits? On June 14, voters will decide how to revise the radio and television law.
“A change from a receiver to a household system is sensible,” says parliamentarian Kurt Fluri of the centre-right Radical Party.
“Because now you can get programmes not just from radios and TV sets, but also from devices that nearly everyone carries on the go,” Fluri adds.
However, Roland Büchel of the Swiss People’s Party is against changing the current system. “Just because you can technically pick something up on a tablet or smartphone doesn’t mean that you actually do. It’s simply not right for this fee to in effect become a new tax,” he says.
Basically, anybody in Switzerland who listens to the radio or watches TV has to pay a fee. The majority of that money goes towards public service broadcasting – notably to the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), swissinfo.ch's parent company.
The SBC has a nationwide contract requiring it to allocate resources to all of the nation’s linguistic regions - German, French, Italian, Romansh.
A change in the law wouldn’t affect this concept.
Currently, households without a TV or a radio are excused from paying the fee. Billag, the agency that collects licence fees on behalf of the government, visits homes to check that there are indeed no devices.
Those caught lying have to pay a penalty. Businesses are also required to pay fees unless they don’t have a radio or TV on site.
According to the cabinet and the majority of parliamentarians, these rules are outdated since people can get programming via car radios, computers, tablets and smartphones. They argue that changing the system to a device-independent fee is logical, modern and necessary.
New media tax?
Parliament approved the law’s revision last September with 137 votes to 99 (with seven abstentions). The revised law essentially means that all households and businesses would continue to be charged.
Exceptions include companies with an annual turnover of less than CHF500,000 ($525,540), welfare recipients and nursing home residents.
Households that can prove that they have neither radio nor television or the internet would be exempted from the fee for five years.
The Association of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises has successfully challenged the reform to a nationwide ballot, so voters will have the final say on June 14. According to the association, the government wants to introduce a “new media control”.
“No matter whether someone owns devices, consumes radio and TV, or is even able to tune in to the programming – everyone has to pay the new penalty tax,” complains the trade association.
Impact on private media
The revision would increase funding for private radio and TV stations and also relax their licence regulations. For the private – primarily local – radio and TV stations, this would mean a larger share of the fees (up to 6% compared to the current 4%, so CHF27 million per year). So private media would receive additional funds for training its journalists and digitisation of its programming.
In particular, the association is perturbed that company data will come from the VAT register and households from the population register. However, that would mean a redistribution in favour of consumers, say proponents – as “under the old system, very few households consume programming without paying”.
Yet many smaller businesses don’t pay any fees now. With the change of system, they can’t duck as their details will automatically be recorded on the VAT register.
But as those in favour point out, some 75% of firms won’t have to pay any fees. And the change would redistribute the cost in such a way that benefits consumers.
The system change is supposed to be neutral in terms of profit. According to the government, the radio and TV fee for households would be reduced from CHF462 to CHF400 per year.
Opponents criticise the fact that the cabinet sets the fees, and predict that the charges will increase in the coming years.
“It’s clearly a new tax, which they’re selling by saying that it only costs individuals CHF400. But that’s nowhere in the law. The cabinet tends to up prices, as shown in recent years,” says Büchel.
Proponents counter that continued population growth will logically lead to lower fees. “A fee is not a tax. A fee is related to the cost. If revenue increases along with the population, then the charges will have to be reduced,” says Fluri.
The “penalty tax” is a “rip-off” and would be “double taxation” argues the trade association.
“Everybody has to pay anyway as an individual. So entrepreneurs, managers, and even the employees of very small firms [from CHF 500,000 turnover] will be double fleeced,” says the trade association.
It is “appropriate and comprehensible” for companies to pay taxes, duties and fees, insists the opposite side.
“If you were to follow the logic of the trade association, then companies would be free of all taxes, duties and fees.”
The Trade Association has complained about the wording in the official booklet for the June 14 vote. It has accused the Federal Chancellery of downplaying the financial impact of the planned changes in the funding system for consumers. This amounts to misinformation of citizens and an infringement on political rights, according to the association. It claims there is broad consensus that the licence fee paid by individual households could increase of CHF1,000 annually over the next few years.
The chancellery, for its part, attributes the figure to the trade association exclusively. For its part, the government says the licence fee will actually drop from CHF400 from the current CHF462 if the reform is accepted.
Source: Swiss News Agency
Translated from German by Susan Misicka, swissinfo.ch