|New rules may keep 2006 World Cup off most Lebanese television screens|
|Holder of broadcast rights threatens to make legal war on pirates
The satellite network with exclusive Middle East broadcast rights to the 2006 FIFA World Cup has mounted a newspaper campaign warning against illegal transmissions of this year's tournament. The move threatens to make the Mondiale inaccessible to the majority of Lebanon's population that relies on illegal cable operators and has put the focus on the government's willingness and ability to combat piracy.
The controversy has also prompted the ministries of Economy, Telecommunications, and Information to coordinate and draft legislation for the country's unregulated cable industry.
In 2002 terrestrial stations paid a nominal fee to Arab Radio and Television (ART) - the Saudi-based satellite network that bought the regional rights for all four World Cup tournaments until 2014 for $100 million - to air the matches.
The system allowed football fans from across the socioeconomic spectrum to tune in to a local station from home or their neighborhood cafe of watering hole and boosted business for Lebanon's service sector.
This year only households that subscribe to Econet - the one satellite provider in the country that carries ART - or fans who can afford to pay an inflated cover charge at a pub will be able to watch. ART has vowed to take legal action against any individual or business that transmits the event without paying the designated fee, leaving the country's illegal satellite operators and many legitimate business owners vulnerable to penalties ranging from a $33,000 fine to a three-year prison sentence for non-compliance.
ART's general manager for Lebanon, Mohammad Yassin, told The Daily Star that he believes this is an opportunity to draw the country's attention to the problem of piracy, one that proliferated during the Civil War and has yet to taper off.
"We have been fighting with pirates for seven years or eight years," said Yassin from ART's offices in Ramlet al-Baida. "People don't even know they're dealing with pirates when they subscribe to cable, but these people are stealing signals and operating illegally."
He said that since local stations would not agree to an "acceptable rate" to carry the games this year, ART contracted Econet to air the matches to individual subscribers and a separate company, Raya Media International, to transmit the channel to hotels, restaurants, bars, and cafes - both at a fee.
The deal is not bad for the unspecified number of existing Econet subscribers, who will pay $15 - in addition to a regular monthly fee of the same amount - but legitimate satellite transmission is out of reach for many Lebanese. There are no reliable statistics on the number of people who subscribe to one of the two licensed satellite services in Lebanon, Cablevision and Econet, but the Telecommunications Ministry estimates the number at about 900,000.
According to Econet representative Joseph Fadi, the other 3 million football fans in Lebanon will have to lay out almost $160 in total to watch the World Cup from home.
He said that there had been a "good increase" in subscription rates since ART first issued its warnings, especially from coffee shops and hotels, but declined to give details about the volume of new customers, insisting that "the growth depends on the how strictly the government implements copyright laws."
Raya's fees range from $1,000 to $6,000 depending on the classification and capacity of the venue. Estimates differed regarding how many businesses in the tourism and hospitality sectors have applied for broadcast licenses.
Yassin said that about 150 restaurants, cafes, and bars, mostly in Beirut, "have come to us wanting to buy," adding that he "was surprised about how many cafes in South Lebanon and the Dahiyeh (Beirut's impoverished southern suburbs) have called to subscribe."
Yassin blames the president of the Lebanese Syndicate of Restaurants, Paul Ariss, for the less than stellar subscription rates. He accuses Ariss of having sent a letter to the members of his syndicate - all 800 of them - urging them to refuse the payment demanded by ART.
Ariss vehemently denies this charge, maintaining that the letter advised them to seek legal consultation before signing an agreement with Raya. The syndicate and ART are in the midst of legal negotiations to resolve the conflict, and Ariss is awaiting a decision from the Cabinet about the fate of World Cup broadcasts.
The dispute centers around Decree 75-99, which deals with the protection of intellectual property rights, which Raya has evoked as its legal justification.
"Our position is that the law is not well-defined about the boundaries of intellectual property rights. Someone needs to tell us if sports are included," Ariss said. "We also think that Raya should deal with channel providers, not end-users, and we consider restaurants to be end-users, just like customers."
Ariss estimates that only about 50 members of his syndicate have signed with Raya so far because most of them are waiting for some sort of settlement to the dispute.
"The restaurants have suffered a lot in 2005, and we just cannot pay any extra charges in 2006, whatever they may be," he told The Daily Star. "If we are forced to pay taxes or other fees, we will have to raise our prices and the Lebanese citizen is going to pay."
The Information Ministry and the Telecommunications Ministry told The Daily Star they had been in talks with all concerned parties, and expected a resolution to be reached in the next three days, but Information Minister Ghazi Aridi dismissed the legal basis of Ariss' position.
"[ART] have an exclusive right, but at the same time there is an economic problem in Lebanon right now and the cable sector is not legally organized," said Aridi.
"We have had so many meetings between the Telecoms Ministry, the Economy Ministry, our ministry, and the Tourism Ministry, and we are trying now to reach an agreement," he added. "Hopefully we should have one in three days."
Shortly before going to press, The Daily Star received an official joint statement from the ministries of Economy, Information, and Telecoms, pledging to "find a temporary solution that preserves the citizens' right to watch the tournament and those of ART." According to the statement, they also decided to grant short-term licenses to illegal cable operators until a broadcasting law is issued.
Observers argue that whatever decision is reached must demonstrate the government's commitment to intellectual property laws, as mandated by both the World Trade Association entry process and the EU Association Agreement, a goal that seems to be at odds with the needs of a local population struggling under a stagnant economy.
Beirut,06 05 2006
The Daily Star