Public services in B&H: Poor picture that citizens don’t want to pay for

Decreasing numbers of citizens are paying subscription fee, whereas position of public services is deteriorating.

by Saida Mustajbegović, 25/10/2016

Non-payment of the legally prescribed tax for public broadcasting services illustrates Bosnian and Herzegovinian society in every segment – political, economic, social and educational. Thus, the story of radio and television tax actually speaks about us, about our attitude toward the public good, but also about the fact that everything that should serve citizens actually serves politics, while the former pay.

Articles about the low collection rate for what is popularly called TV subscription reflect political turmoil, while news on screens with poor signal in some parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina seems to say it should not be listened to or watched. Perhaps citizens do not know what the law says precisely, but they are aware whether they have something or not and how much they can influence its operation.

The amount of the RTV tax was initially set by the Steering Board of the Public Enterprise of RTV BiH in 1998 – six KM. After that, the amount of the RTV tax was harmonized with the official inflation rate and is now 7.5 KM. Last year the Transport and Communication Committee of the B&H Parliamentary Assembly House of Representatives confirmed that price. The Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA) of B&H concluded that “in the given circumstances, there are no arguments that would justify changing the amount of the RTV tax.” They established this based on data that the tax is paid by only a little over 50 percent of taxpayers and that this percentage is decreasing by the day.

Various models of collecting funds have been discussed for a long time. The House of Representatives of the Parliamentary Assembly of B&H in a July session did not adopt a Proposed Law on Amendments to the Law on the Public Broadcasting System of B&H, which foresaw collection of RTV tax through electricity bills. On that occasion, BHRT Director Belmin Karamehmedović said in an interview with the Sarajevo daily Faktor that parties from the Republika Srpska as well as the HDZ party had not been in favor of the law, adding that Bosnia and Herzegovina is “the only country in which people elected by citizens to uphold the law are openly calling for its violation”. He was referring to appeals to citizens made by representatives of the HDZ and RS-based parties to not pay the legally prescribed tax.

One example dates back to 2013 when representatives of the National Assembly of the RS in a special session discussed the possibility of publicly appealing to citizens to not pay the RTV tax. At the time, Milorad Dodik, the RS president, after meeting with RS officials serving in common institutions of B&H, said he expects that one of the special session’s conclusions would be not to pay the RTV tax. On the other hand, representatives of the HDZ party often call for the creation of a third channel on the public service with the prefix Croat, while at the same time lobbying and working to weaken existing frequencies on public broadcasting services.

Iva from Tomislavgrad described the attitude of her fellow citizens toward programs on public broadcasters.

“We don’t have these programs at all, and if we do, they can’t be watched because the picture is very poor, but we are supposed to pay for them nevertheless and that is why a very small number of people pay. My fellow citizens think it’s a disgrace that they live in B&H and can’t have a normal TV program, normal picture. Many of them think there isn’t anything to see anyway,” she says.

Danijela from Sarajevo has a similar opinion and maintains that any kind of polemic about national channels should be avoided.

“Maybe I’m a black sheep in the world; it’s probably more important for the majority to fill the primetime news program with Croat words and to cover national issues at the expense of investigative reporting and, for example, BBC documentaries and quality transmissions and local productions, educational programs, cultural and artistic (programs). The subscription is talked about here only in the context of the national channel and I can’t comprehend that,” she says.

Total revenue from the RTV tax presented in BHRT reports from last year is 20,300,008 KM. In the overall revenue structure, revenue from the RTV tax makes up 60 percent. There was also an evident decline in revenue from the RTV tax in 2015, both in relation to the 2015 Plan and to results from 2014. Compared to the 2015 Plan, BHRT’s revenue from the RTV tax fell by 8.28 percent (lower by 1,813,992 KM), while compared to results achieved in the previous period, this revenue was reduced by 7.7 percent (lower by 1,694,445 KM).

Tax is money extortion

Stevo from Banja Luka says that payment of the tax is “extortion of money, like most other things.” This is precisely the sentence that we have heard many times with regard to the majority of legally prescribed fees. In most cases, citizens do not want to pay for services they more or less have, but when it comes to the RTV tax, there are entire internet forums that advise citizens how to legally avoid payment.

However, a case from 2004 demonstrates that the state has a mechanism to ‘extort’ money from citizens even when they are not getting the service they are supposed to pay for. In Sanski Most, court orders were typed up on forced collection of unpaid radio-television taxes for 1,600 households, with average amounts of 300 KM. According to media reports, in some local communities citizens were not getting the radio and television signal at all and thus believed they should not pay the tax. But ultimately they had to. Pensioners, for instance, started having a certain amount deducted from their monthly pension. This is not the only example: according to the then justice minister of the RS, in 2010 there were more than 40,000 cases dealing with collection of the RTV tax at basic courts in the RS.

While a campaign has been waged for years to create a third, Croat, broadcasting service, no one has made effort to ensure good signal on their TV sets to citizens in all parts of B&H. It is interesting that the current law that regulates this field in that segment is hypocritical because it states “in the scope of existing technical capacities”. However, some political representatives refer to the Law on the Protection of Consumers, which states that you are not under obligation to pay if you do not have a signed contract with the service provider and if you never received a bill or warning for the service.

Stevo does not pay the subscription fee because he is a subtenant and the law “does not recognize” him as such and thus places him under no obligation.

“To be honest, after the live transmission of Dodik’s concert in the square, I think television has become garbage in the worst and most vulgar sense of that word,” says the Banja Luka resident.

Public services are mostly criticized for poor editorial policies, favoring certain political parties, although the current law prescribes very precisely that politics shall not interfere in the work of services. However, there is really no sanction for what is happening in practice.

Stevo, like Ajna from Sarajevo, believes that the public service should serve citizens and serve their interests because they are the ones who are paying for it.

“I pay the subscription fee, although I rarely watch programs on the public service. They absolutely don’t suit my needs or those of my family. On the other hand, I have high regard for some journalists who work there, especially on radio, and I wholeheartedly wish that their working conditions will improve, which should lead to higher program quality,” said Ajna.

The Law on the Public Broadcasting System of Bosnia and Herzegovina specifically defines the obligation that “every household and legal person in the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina who possesses a radio or television set shall pay a monthly tax for the possession of the set under the conditions specified by this law. Revenue from the RTV tax may be used only for funding the primary activity of public broadcasting services. Revenue from the RTV tax shall not be subject to tax obligations.”

It is prescribed that the tax is to be paid together with the landline telephone bill. The collection rate was not high even when many B&H citizens were using landline services provided by the national telecoms. As the percentage declined, attempts were made to have the fee paid together with electricity bills. However, the initial solution remained in use.

Banja Luka journalist Ljupko Mišeljić thinks the problem is B&H citizens’ dissatisfaction with programs broadcast by the radio and television services, their violation of the Law on the Public Broadcasting System and Law on Public Broadcasting services and program guidelines and principles.

“Attention should focus more on the program schedule and content because public services are supposed to inform, entertain and educate the public, whereas it seems that citizens are losing trust because the public services have become battlegrounds for political fights, agitation and propaganda. The current money distribution system is good, which cannot be said of the public services’ programs. Thus, it isn’t fair, nor should it be right, that the only voices that come from the public services are those that react to violations of the Law with regard to collection of payment, while criticism of the program content is not heard,” Mišeljić told Media.ba.

When the topic of creation of a state public broadcasting service was discussed in 2001, the way it was designed was not totally clear even to employees from the so-called Gray Home. The situation is the same today, whereas similar institutions in the world are measuring their channels’ viewership percentages and worrying about their decline because the attention of the younger population is diverting to the internet.

The debate about public television services has constantly been in the spotlight since 1995, mostly confusing for the average citizen, and continues without any substance or culmination. For them everything is clear, there either is a program or there isn’t, it is either good or it is bad, and the tax is something that simply must be paid.

The article was originally published by Mediacentar_Online, website of the Mediacentar Sarajevo. 

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