March 4, 2018 / 5:02 PM / 5 months ago

UPDATE 1-Switzerland vote to retain licence fee for state broadcaster

(Updates with final result, comment from Swiss minister)

By John Revill

ZURICH, March 4 (Reuters) - Swiss citizens clearly rejected an attempt to abolish fees for state radio and TV in a referendum vote on Sunday seen as protecting public service broadcasting in the country.

Had the proposal passed, Switzerland would have been the first European country to abolish mandatory licence fees for its public service broadcaster.

Nearly 72 percent voted against the proposal to scrap the so-called Billag fees in a referendum under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy.

Every household pays a 451 Swiss franc ($480.8) annual charge to fund Swiss public broadcasters. Their budgets faced being cut by three quarters if the vote had been successful.

Communications minister Doris Leuthard said she was pleased Swiss voters had shown they were prepared to pay a fee for public services and did not want purely commercial broadcasting.

The Swiss government had opposed the proposal, saying it threatened media diversity and would damage political debate in the country of 8.4 million people divided into four different language groups.

“Radio and television in Switzerland should also in the future contribute to education, cultural development, forming opinions as well as entertainment,” she told a news conference. “I am pleased that media diversity has been maintained.”

Broadcasters should continue to serve all Swiss, Leuthard added.

Opponents had said abolishing the fee would lead to reduced independence for broadcasters and undermine services for Switzerland’s four different linguistic regions.

Campaigners against the fee had argued that state broadcaster SRG was too large and must save money. They also said that charging fees had become outmoded, especially in an era of streaming services such as Netflix.

“At present we have a near monopoly with a state-controlled broadcasting company. But by cutting down the subsidy it receives, a freer market for the media will exist in Switzerland,” said Florian Maier, secretary general of the No Billag campaign.

In a second vote on Sunday, 84.1 percent of voters approved extending the government’s right to levy income and sales taxes to 2035.

Unlike other countries, Switzerland gives the central government the right to raise taxes only for a limited time, with the current arrangement due to finish at the end of 2020.

$1 = 0.9380 Swiss francs Additional reporting by Cecile Mantovani Editing by Keith Weir and Catherine Evans

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