Swiss urge voters to keep fee for public broadcasters

ZURICH (Reuters) - The Swiss government urged voters on Monday to keep the annual license fee that finances public broadcasters, saying taxpayer money played a crucial role in supporting cultural diversity and political discourse in the media.

Its call seeks to defuse support for the “No Billag” initiative that comes to a binding vote on March 4 and which opinion polls show has around 57 percent support.

Proponents want to scrap the “Billag” fee that last year raised 1.37 billion Swiss francs ($1.38 billion) as the financial lifeblood for public broadcasters at the federal, regional and local levels.

National broadcaster SRG, which operates in the four national languages, gets 75 percent of its budget from the fee.

“A varied media offering is important for a small, polyglot country like Switzerland with its direct democracy,” President Doris Leuthard said in a statement.

Switzerland says it would be the first country in Europe to abolish fees for public broadcasting should the measure be adopted. This would push advertising revenue to mostly foreign-controlled commercial media.

The government is cutting the fee -- levied on homes with a radio or TV set -- to 365 francs per private household from 2019 from around 450 now. Businesses will pay up to 35,590 francs a year based on a sliding scale of annual sales.

($1 = 0.9915 Swiss francs)

Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Catherine Evans