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Ask Hans-Torsten: Rundfunkbeitrag

Hans-Torsten Richter answers your questions about surviving and thriving in Berlin, like what is up with the Rundfunkbeitrag.

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Hans-Torsten Richter answers your questions about surviving and thriving in Berlin. Write to [email protected]

Dear Hans-Torsten,

I got this letter in the mail recently about something called the Rundfunkbeitrag ARD ZDF Deutschlandradio, asking for €17.98 a month. For what? TV? I don’t watch German TV. Other people I know also got the letter and just threw it away. Do I have to pay?

– Jackson

Dear Jackson,

Here’s the deal. The Rundfunkbeitrag, which used to be called the GEZ, is a fee that funds public TV and radio in Germany. ARD and ZDF are something like the BBC, but there are two of them. With the money they collect (€7.6 billion annually!), they fund 22 TV and 67 radio stations – national and local. And all of their websites.

Since January 1, 2013, there’s been a new law: every household in Germany is required to pay this fee (which has been rechristened “Beitrag” or “contribution” to make it sound nicer) – even if they don’t own a TV or radio. Because you can stream everything on your computer, tablet or phone. Up until 2013, the fee was less if you had a computer but no TV (€5.71). But now you’ve got to pay up no matter what – that is, unless you can prove you’re both deaf and blind, thus incapable of both listening and watching.

A lot of people are up-in-arms. Critics say the new fee is unfair – the same amount, regardless of which devices they own. But the main complaint is that public TV is becoming indistinguishable from private TV. Crap game shows like Das Quiz, soaps like Verbotene Liebe or Volksmusik horrors like Musikantenstadl could be easily done by the likes of Pro 7 and SAT1. Another contentious point: many public TV and radio stations run advertising. How fair and independent is that? 
I would gladly support public service cultural programming and investigative journalism – free from advertising. You’ll find this on stations like Deutschlandfunk radio and 3sat TV. However, public TV’s main priority seems to be lowbrow, ad-fuelled entertainment.

There’s a strike against the Rundfunkbeitrag, a small number of people who are simply refusing to pay. At www.zahlungsstreik.net you’ll find some basic info in English – and guidelines in German on the consequences of not paying. By sending in letters rejecting the fee, the strikers hope to delay payment until a court rules the Rundfunkbeitrag unconstitutional. The likelihood of that happening? Impossible to say.

In short, Jackson, you can either pay the €17.98 per month (per household) – or simply not pay, as a political statement. but at your
 peril, because these people will get your money eventually, and might even ask for back payments going back to January 2013.    

Originally published in issue #125, March 2014.