- - Thursday, May 25, 2017

BERLIN — The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party might best be known for its vocal opposition to the refugees that have flooded into the country and their disdain for the euro. But the party’s deputy chairwoman, Beatrix von Storch, also rails against the country’s decades-old mandatory public broadcasting tax that German households and businesses must pay even if they don’t own a radio or TV.

“Resistance to the forced payment for television is a core issue of the party,” said Ms. von Storch, who refuses to pay the contribution of roughly $20 per month that underwrites Germany’s three major public television and radio broadcasters and their dozens of affiliates.

Ms. von Storch and her party are often harshly criticized on the broadcasters’ various satirical shows and entertainment programs, which the AfD believes are slanted left and shouldn’t be produced with mandatory taxpayer contributions.

“Public broadcasting is a relic that has to be abolished,” she said. She doesn’t “voluntarily pay the contributions requested unless I’m put under pressure by a bailiff.”

While the AfD’s political views are usually on the fringe of public opinion, its plank on the public broadcasting tax, known locally as the GEZ, has widespread appeal across the political spectrum.

Many otherwise law-abiding Germans refuse to pay the tax in spite of fines and even jail time. Last year, the agency that collects the GEZ, the Beitragsservice, issued over 25 million nonpayment warnings to approximately 41 million households — a 20 percent jump from 2014.

Introduced under a socialist government in the 1970s, officials initially required only households with televisions or radios to pay the GEZ. But the scope expanded in 2013 when the government began requiring all households and businesses to pony up.

Today, the government rakes in $8.6 billion a year in GEZ fees that comprise 85 percent of the public broadcasters’ funding.

Public broadcasting in the United States receives just a fraction of its annual operating costs from taxpayers — around $445 million a year. That amounts to about 15 percent of the industry’s annual $3 billion budget, with the difference made up by donations and other revenue.

Germany’s public broadcasters and proponents of the fees say they are necessary to support independent and diverse journalism and other content in an age of declining ad revenue.

“The public broadcasters make well-balanced programming not only to earn money, but also to inform the public and serve an educational purpose,” said Theresa Isigkeit, 28, a student in Berlin.

Still, many contest the methods used to collect the fees. Households and businesses must file separate transactions every month in addition to annual taxes. “Why don’t they just add something on your normal taxes? It doesn’t make sense,” said Max Kersting, 29, co-founder of a startup in Berlin. “I agree with the fees, but I don’t agree with the execution.”

Around 4.9 million households are facing punitive action for nonpayment. Last year, German officials froze the assets and jailed a “GEZ rebel” for 61 days — an action that has fueled opposition movements like the one led by like Rene Ketterer, owner of an information technology software company in southern Germany.

After clashing with the Beitragsservice for refusing to pay the GEZ, Mr. Ketterer decided to take action. He formed an online forum and protest group after the Beitragsservice paid him a visit for nonpayment on his car radio. His online forum now boasts more than 1 million views per month.

The opposition movement isn’t just digital. Thousands have met across Germany — from the southern city of Karlsruhe to Berlin’s hip tech circles — to protest and distribute information and to raise awareness.

Unlike the AfD, Mr. Ketterer doesn’t support completely abolishing the payment. He is looking for a conversation about its necessity, he said. That’s because 30 years ago, when media were analog and expensive to broadcast, Mr. Ketterer supported the GEZ. In the age of the internet, he’s not so sure.

“Do we really need this in the 21st century, when we have so many options for media and television?” he asked. “Everything is available to the public already.”

While television is traditionally one of the most expensive mediums for production, Mr. Ketterer questioned the necessity of the public business model and pointed to the success of the private model for newspapers in Germany.

Germany has one of the most thriving newspaper industries in Europe, with 80 million residents being served by 351 dailies, according to the Federal Association of German Newspaper Publishers. “There aren’t any public newspapers because with the newspapers [a private model] works,” said Mr. Ketterer. “Why shouldn’t it also work with television and radio.”

Meanwhile, dozens of lawsuits piled up in German courts to contest the GEZ and government crackdown for nonpayment. Those cases have drawn the attention of Germany’s Constitutional Court, whose justices are slated to discuss and issue a judgment on the legality of the forced payments by early fall.

Lower courts have ruled that the GEZ is constitutional. But that hasn’t shaken its opponents’ resolve. “We’ll definitely put pressure on the parliament to finally limit the scope of the public broadcasters which have burst their seams,” said Ms. von Storch.

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