FRENCH POLYNESIA STOPS SATELLITE RELAY OF FRENCH RADIO, TV TO OUTER ISLANDS

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PAPE‘ETE, Tahiti, French Polynesia (August 3, 2001 - (Oceania Flash/SPC)---Since August 1, French Polynesia's local government has prevented the satellite relay of French radio and TV programming to the territory's outer islands, urging the French overseas radio and television network RFO to pay for the transmission costs, the daily newspaper La Dépêche de Tahiti reports.

Government Vice President Edouard Fritch, in a press release, said that local authorities had been asking RFO "for several years" to bear the cost of its satellite transmission to French Polynesia's outer islands.

French Polynesia, which covers an area equivalent to that of Europe, is using the Polysat satellite to relay RFO.

Polysat, which is controlled by local Post and Telecommunication office, since Wednesday midnight no longer carries the RFO signal.

"We did this to give one last chance to RFO ... which until now has not borne costs that it is responsible for. Those expenditures have been taken care of, on an exceptional and temporary basis, by the French Polynesian government, for the past fifteen years or so," he told La Dépêche.

Fritch said since 1986 the financial burden incurred by this RFO signal relay has constantly increased on the local government.

"Currently, we're talking about 154 million French Pacific Francs (over one million U.S. dollars) per year ... And it is RFO's obligation, as a public service, to take care of the broadcasting."

"So we think it is legitimate to consider that the Territory again asks this company to bear the cost."

Fritch says he and French Polynesia's President Gaston Flosse had raised the matter over the years with several successive RFO Chairmen, but the request, he said, has always been ignored.

However, he admitted that current RFO chairman André-Michel Besse last month replied by way of a letter, saying the problem raised a legal question of competencies between French Polynesia's territorial authorities and France.

Last week, French Secretary of State for Overseas Administrations Christian Paul was in French Polynesia.

Fritch told local media the matter had been raised and verbal assurances were given by Paul that RFO (a French public company) would bear the cost.

"But these words were followed by no deeds that would have confirmed any commitment," Fritch said.

Earlier this week, however, RFO headquarters in Paris confirmed in writing that the payment of the satellite charge was finally approved, but was still subject to a final endorsement by RFO's Board, which will not meet until September.

But then "the agreement given that same morning was taken back in the afternoon," Fritch said.

The local government's latest action follows rising tension between RFO and local authorities.

Last month, the French channel was denied rights to cover (either live or recorded) the hugely popular "Heiva" annual dance festival.

Local television Tahiti Nui TV (TNTV, which was set up last year) was authorized to provide coverage instead.

Fritch also pointed out that TNTV is received in French Polynesia's outer islands through its satellite equivalent TNS (Tahiti Nui Satellite).

Fritch aid he was now submitting a draft agreement to RFO, which would formalize payment by the French company of the satellite costs.

"The ball is in their court. As soon as this carrier agreement is signed, I will instruct OPT to resume transmission of the programs in French Polynesia."

Areas most affected are the archipelagos of the Marquesas, Tuamotu, Gambier and Austral islands, with an estimated viewership of around 30,000.

In a statement released on Thursday, State Secretary Paul "deplored" OPT's decision and expressed "concern" at what he terms a "breach of continuity of the audio-visual public service and information pluralism."

Paul also stressed that during his recent visit in French Polynesia, he had said the broadcast of RFO programs should be maintained.

Back in Paris, he had "invited" RFO to "immediately get in touch" with OPT to settle the matter and bear the cost.

"RFO's chairman immediately took action," Paul added, asking OPT to resume its carrier service "in order to guarantee equal access to public audio-visual services to all Polynesians."

In a later release, Fritch (who is also OPT chairman) reacted to that statement, saying, OPT convened an extraordinary meeting of its Board on Wednesday.

The Board endorsed the "freeze" of transmissions for RFO signals in the French Polynesian territory until August 31 and gave leave to OPT to draft an agreement to be signed with RFO.

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