Upcoming referendum could result in Switzerland becoming the first European nation to dismantle the majority of its public broadcasting service. 

The March 4 “No Billag” referendum calls for the abolition of the public broadcasting licence fee following populist discontent that it was too expensive and lacked value for money. There have also been concerns by proponents of “No Billag” that the payment should be voluntary rather than compulsory, and that a successful vote would result in a more competitive marketplace for private broadcasters that might otherwise struggle to compete against The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SRG-SSR). The fee is the highest in Europe and amounts to 0.74% of an average income in Switzerland with.

Opponents, on the other hand – of which the Swiss government are one – believe a vote for “No Billag” would harm the “quality and plurality of the media”, which forms an essential foundation for the country’s direct democracy. More pertinently, the presence of an effective and well-funded public broadcaster acts as a moderating influence within an increasingly polarised media landscape and against the prevalence of fake news. There are also fears that losing SRG-SSR will have a substantial impact on national solidarity, with the fee substantially contributing to the broadcaster’s ability to operate across all regions, in all four national languages.

The vote comes as a number of European public broadcasters face growing political pressure and are increasingly challenged by populist groups. Poland’s public media landscape has been in crisis since the conservative Law and Justice party entered government in late 2015, effectively transforming TVN into a state broadcaster. Similar pressures have been seen in Slovakia and Hungary. Danish public broadcaster DR has recently attracted the support of 10 Director-Generals of PSBs across Europe as it faces proposed budget cuts that would drastically diminish its ability to operate under its current public service mandate.

Despite recent polls showing a growth in support against “No Billag”, the upcoming referendum highlights that the debate surrounding PSB and its importance needs to be more public and more nuanced than ever before.

More in detail

› Demands and Consequences This comprehensive article by Swissinfo explores the reasons for and potential outcomes of the “No Billag” referendum. It offers a thorough overview of the licence fee and how it is paid and how the income is split between TV, radio and between broadcasters representing Switzerland’s four linguistic and cultural regions. More information about how the licence fee is distributed can be found here.

› The polls The referendum has drawn a high level of coverage and with it, a number of polls claiming to predict the outcome. The results have been close to say the least. At the end of December a poll conducted by Sunday newspapers Le Matin Dimanche and SonntagsZeitung found 56.6% of those surveyed preferred scrapping the fee despite 60% being satisfied with the content produced by SRG-SSR. This result was also backed by a poll conducted by 20 Minuten, which found 51% backed “No Billag”.

However, a more recent poll conducted by the Tamedia Group of over 15,000 people found that 59% of respondents would reject a proposal to abolish the current licence fee system.

› Demographics The referendum has pulled together unlikely allies in favour of “No Billag”, reports Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). The obvious advocates to the right of the political spectrum have been met with a large number of youth supporters in favour of the vote. One voter, 22, told CJR “For older people, SRG is a clear thing… For younger people, it’s too expensive. They don’t use it. For many, it’s about money. They only see the cost.”

›  In support of PSB → More than 6000 artist and 50 arts organisations have called on the Swiss public to vote against removing the licence fee. Central to their argument is the fact that a public broadcaster helps to reflect and represent the cultural diversity of Switzerland. According to a public statement issued by the group, channels solely funded by advertising won’t feature as much musical diversity, with a successful vote not only threatening “freedom of expression but also Swiss cultural traditions”.

The Non à no Billag website is also a useful resource for arguments against a yes vote in the referendum. It argues that a move to get rid of the licence fee will not strengthen the political economy or be of benefit to the consumer. Instead the group claims that “radio and television programs are not profitable in Switzerland and even less in a minority region such as French-speaking Switzerland. They can not be self-financing through advertising or subscriptions. The payment of a fee is therefore essential.


› Is this the end of Swiss PSB? → Stephan Russ-Mohl , Director of the European Journalism Observatory, argues that calls to end Switzerland’s broadcasting licence fee threaten the country’s public service media and elucidates to a more concentrated media market in the event of a victory for “No Billag” supporters.

› Swiss abroad What media and services do Swiss nationals abroad use to keep up-to-date with news from home? This article highlights the importance of Swiss public broadcasting to those wanting to keep across news from home but also reveals the reservations some have in paying the fee following the termination of  international shortwave transmissions in 2004 and frustrations about content geoblocking.

› In Defence of SRG-SSR The former head of RTÉ in the Republic of Ireland and current t Director General of EBU, Noel Curran, writes this op-ed in support of a no vote to “No Billag”. He argues that “that there has never been a time in the history of broadcasting when it was more important to have well-funded and independent PSM. It is precisely because anyone can now broadcast their views and opinions online that trust in media is declining. At times like this, people need broadcasters they can turn to for independent news, reliable information and a national perspective.

The links above are to original stories, which are not produced by PMA. ‘Focus on PSM’ brings together stories from regions experiencing periods of heightened debate about the role of public media, media independence and media freedom. PMA does not necessarily endorse these stories nor do they necessarily reflect the view of PMA.

Header Image: SRG-SSR building in Zurich. CreditRoland zh/Creative Commons