Private TV and radio stations forced to pay massive license fees

Ma’an Network employees undergo intensive production training in Bethlehem prior to the December launch of a live news service from each TV station in the Ma’an Network, 27 October 2006. (MaanImages/Magnus Johansson)

For the first time since their launch following the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1993 during the Oslo process, the private TV and radio stations across the Palestinian territories are at a turning point. The majority of these stations are threatened with closure, following a decision by the ministry of communications and information technology to force these channels to pay large fees to the government, with the threat of backdated payments being demanded also.

Directors and owners of these channels were stunned by the decision, considered to be beyond their means.

The previous Fatah government issued order no. 223 in 2004, regarding tariffs and licenses. That decision was sharply opposed by private television and radio stations.

One day after the recent strike of public sector employees ended in late 2006, the communications ministry sent messages to the directors and owners of the private stations, asking them to pay for their licenses, based on a cabinet decision taken on 12 October 2006, in order to continue their transmission.

In the new decision the licenses were halved in price from the previous rates. The licenses ranged between 4,150 Jordanian Dinars (5,850 USD) and 8,500 Jordanian Dinars (12,000 USD) for each television station, depending on the power of their transmitters.

For the radio stations, the licenses range from 2000 Jordanian Dinars (2,800 USD) to 9400 Jordanian Dinars (13,270 USD), depending on the power and quality of their transmission.

Sweidan: decision hasty and not fully thought through

Salim Sweidan, the president of the Ma’an network and general director of Nablus TV, described the decision as “hasty” and “not thought through”. He stated that the decision does not take into consideration the limited conditions and capacities of the stations.

Sweidan declared, “We in the Ma’an Network, which comprises the largest ten private television stations in the Palestinian territories [one in each of the major cities], can’t pay the fees that the ministry is asking for, despite the discount which has been discussed. We have to pay a total of some 100,000 US dollars, which is enough money to launch a satellite channel, and is far too much to simply license limited stations, whose transmission does not extend beyond each of the Palestinian governorates.”

Sweidan confirmed that the decision affects the freedom of the Palestinian press, which has, over the past several years, proven its ability to project the voice of the Palestinian people. The independent Palestinian media have even proven their ability to function under very difficult conditions, including regularly being attacked and destroyed by the Israeli military.

Sweidan added that the media organizations expected the Palestinian government to honour and support the press, rather than imposing yet more obstacles.

Al-Kurdi: The stations are threatened with closure

The general director of Amal TV in Hebron, Muataz Al-Kurdi, considered the insistence of the ministry to force the stations to pay the elevated fees as an “implied order” to close these stations, “which have all suffered from many hardships, particularly during the years of Intifada.”

Al-Kurdi demanded that the communications ministry, and other concerned ministries, protect the media institutions through endorsing laws that protect the stations and the dozens of employees, whose jobs are at risk as a result of this new order.

He also asked them to take into consideration the poor economic situation, and to allocate discounts appropriate to the current conditions.

Abir Al-Kilami: Our airwaves are still occupied

The managing director of Gama TV in Nablus, Ms Abir Al-Kilami, declared that “the government does not yet possess these airwaves, which are the right of the Palestinian people. These waves are still under Israeli control.”

She enquired, “Can the government guarantee that the waves will really be owned by the stations which pay their fees? What guarantees do they have?”

Al-Kilami demanded that the government provide guarantees that assured perpetual ownership of the airwaves, before they think of how to deal with the economic crisis. She also demanded that there be a national unity government, saying that this would improve the economic situation. “These stations are either bankrupt or on the brink of bankruptcy already,” according to Ms Al-Kilami.

Al-Ashqar: The stations’ income is barely enough for the salaries of the employees

The owner of As-Salam TV in Tulkarem, Issa Al-Ashqar, explained that local stations depend financially on the advertisements for local businesses, which have dropped sharply. “The majority of TV stations’ owners have adopted a policy of symbolic fees for such advertisements, in accordance to the poor economic conditions, locally and nationally, many of whom are suffering from low or nonexistent income and unemployment.”

Al-Ashqar’s vision was no different from other managers and owners of private stations. His station’s income barely covers the running costs of the organisation. “My employees are the breadwinners for families. How can we afford to pay such high license fees when I am unable to pay the water, electricity and telephone bills?”

Al-Ashqar called for these licenses to be reconsidered, in order to enable everybody to pay, according to their ability. He stated that everybody has a high sense of responsibility and belonging. He quoted the Qur’an, saying: “God gives us work according to our abilities.”

The ministry: The decision came to organise the work of the stations

In their comments on the decision, the undersecretary of the communications ministry, Suleiman Zuheiri, declared that the aim of this decision is “to organise the transmission of the radio and television stations in a way that guarantees not to harm the national interests and environment.” He said that the fees were being imposed in accordance with the law and through a cabinet decision.

Zuheiri added that his ministry, the information and interior ministries had prepared and commended the decision to the cabinet, asking them to increase the license fees in accordance with the economic situations of the stations. In addition, he said that “the Palestinian Authority has to understand the problems of these stations and if these stations are weakened, they will not survive.”

Zuheiri called the owners of the stations to examine the issue in terms of the organisation of the stations, rather than in terms of monetary fees from the stations.

In response to a question from Ma’an about the fact that the Palestinian Authority does not own the rights to the airwaves in the Palestinian territories in accordance with any international agreement, Zuheiri stated that “there were Palestinian radio and TV stations before and after the Oslo Accords.” He added that the Palestinians have the right to own their own natural resources, and Oslo enhanced this right.

He affirmed that the existence of private stations has preserved the Palestinian right to the ownership of these airwaves.

The undersecretary of the ministry explained that foreign stations are permitted to use the Palestinian airwaves, as this opens the market to investment in the available resources. His vision is that the existence of these strains has two benefits: 1) the ability to cover local events rapidly and 2) investment from abroad and the provision of job opportunities for local professionals and workers.

Zuheiri’s vision for the way out of the crisis is for the stations to join together, like the Ma’an network of independent television stations.

He added that the stations can complement each other’s work through specialisation, such as providing channels specifically for youth or children. He stated that there are 108 frequencies used in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which use signal boosters. He warned that this high use of the airwaves can dangerously affect the environment and potentially the people within it, due to the poor quality of the antennas.

The fees currently being demanded by the communications ministry are for 2006. The stations are obliged to pay the 2006 fees immediately, and to pay 2007’s fees within the coming three months. Backdated fees will, apparently, be discussed at a later date.

This article was originally published by the Ma’an News Agency.