BEIRUT: Representatives of cable providers in Lebanon are set to appear before the judiciary for investigation Tuesday, after a lawsuit was filed against them by the country’s eight television stations for refusing to pay for broadcasting rights.
The lawsuit was lodged Monday by Tele Liban, LBCI, MTV, Future TV, Al-Manar, NBN, OTV and Al-Jadeed. The action targets Mohammad Khaled, the representative of cable providers in Lebanon, Suleiman Farah, of the cable company Fiber Waves and United Cable Lebanon. They are alleged to have violated Articles 87 and 88 of a law protecting intellectual and artistic property, and Article 6 of an audio-visual law.
After receiving a delegation from the eight TV stations, state prosecutor Samir Hammoud referred the case to the Department of Central Criminal Investigation, headed by Brig. Maurice Abu Zeidan. He will begin the investigation Tuesday.
An ongoing dispute between television stations and cable providers escalated over the weekend, when some cable providers stopped broadcasting LBCI and Al-Jadeed.
The move came in response to a statement issued by the eight television stations on May 1, announcing that cable providers who want to air their programming must pay $4 of the monthly fee they collect from each subscriber.
Both sides have traded accusations as to the feasibility and fairness of the proposal.
The statement urged cable providers to contact the channels’ lawyer, Wassim Mansouri, between May 1 and June 1, 2015, in order to sign the required legal papers and arrange for payment of the fee. Cable providers who signed during the specified period would have any previous violations disregarded.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Khaled said that cable providers cannot afford to pay the $4 fee.
“We can’t pay them, and we cannot oblige subscribers to pay an additional fee either,” Khaled said. “Do you think the cable provider is left with more than LL2,000 or LL3,000 out of the LL15,000 monthly fee he gets from each subscriber? The cable provider has to pay for the maintenance of his network, along with other expenses.”
Television stations hope the fees, in concert with several other initiatives, will result in an increase in revenue and ease the financial difficulties the industry has faced in recent years.
They argue that though cable and satellite providers already pay a fee for foreign satellite channels such as OSN and beIN, they pay nothing to air programming from local stations.
But Khaled argued that the fees paid to foreign channels are far less than those being demanded by Lebanese stations. “Had they asked for a fee of LL1,000, or another symbolic amount, it would not have been a problem.”
He also explained that while foreign channels were encrypted, Lebanese stations are still available for free over NileSat, a satellite service. “People can buy a dish and watch these channels for free.”
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese subscribe to cable, but many providers are unlicensed.
Asked whether cable providers would halt retransmission of other channels as well, Khaled said this would be decided later.
Khaled, who said that he would appear for investigation Tuesday, claimed that some television channels had contacted cable providers to express that the $4 fee was “not an issue for them,” though he refused to say which ones.
However, Mansouri, who is representing the stations, countered that cable providers could not argue that the $4 fee was not affordable, as the monthly fees they receive are not fixed.
“The monthly fee ranges between LL10,000 and LL25,000 across Lebanon,” Mansouri told The Daily Star. “What we are doing is attempting to reorganize this sector.”
Mansouri said that a step in this direction would be to fix the monthly subscription fee received by cable providers after taking into consideration the expenses they incur. He added that not all cable providers have opposed the $4 fee.
“Many cable providers have already contacted us and expressed their willingness to pay the $4 fee. Why don’t they have a problem?”
Mansouri said that halting the broadcast of a station required a Cabinet decision, in light of a recommendation by the National Audio-Visual Media Council.
“This [stopping of local stations’ broadcasts] shows that the state does not control this sector in terms of the fees collected and the type of programs aired,” Mansouri said.
He also dismissed claims that television stations were not united in their demands for the fee to be imposed. “I am the only person who speaks on their behalf, and I say that these differences do not exist at all.”
Parliament’s Media and Telecommunications Committee slammed the cable providers’ move to stop broadcasting LBCI and Al-Jadeed, saying that it targeted the Lebanese public.
“We reject this step and call for addressing it immediately. That’s why the committee asked Information Minister Ramzi Joreige to take all necessary measures in this regard.”
Pierre Daher, chairman of LBCI’s board of directors, said that cable providers Cable Vision and ECOnet have agreed to pay the required fee.
“We held a meeting with them and they said that in principle, they do not have a problem [paying it],” Daher said, adding that other companies were willing to follow suit.
“Anyone willing to continue [to broadcast content from the eight stations] is welcome. But they have one month to settle their situation,” he warned.
Daher said that cable providers not satisfied with the new terms must stop airing programming from all eight stations once and for all, rather than just that of LBCI and Al-Jadeed.
A statement released by the television stations Monday evening said that they were only asking for a small portion of what they are due.
“[TV stations] have ignored for years the organized looting carried out by cable companies. But this period is over.”
The channels added that their “battle” was with cable providers rather than Lebanese people, and that rumors of additional fees for subscribers were part of an attempt by cable companies to avoid payment.