In Lebanese election, airtime does not come cheap for candidates

Lebanese media outlets are charging parliamentary candidates exorbitant prices for coverage.
Wednesday 25/04/2018
Ameen Rizq (L), a Future movement candidate for the Lebanese parliamentary elections, giving an interview for his campaign aired on Future TV in Beirut on April 11. (AFP)
Ameen Rizq (L), a Future movement candidate for the Lebanese parliamentary elections, giving an interview for his campaign aired on Future TV in Beirut on April 11. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Lebanese media outlets are charging parliamentary candidates exorbitant prices for coverage — $6,000 can buy a minute of airtime and a talk show episode can cost $240,000.

Whether beamed into living rooms on television screens or heard over the radio, legislative hopefuls are keen to get their message to constituents before the May 6 election.

The long-awaited vote is the first since 2009 and marks the end of a years-long political stalemate that had paralysed Lebanese government institutions.

The deadlock left news organisations across Lebanon starving for both content and funds. Most of their financial backers are politically affiliated and found little use for their media arms in a time of muted political rivalry. Now that elections are on, however, the competition, the news cycle and the money are flowing again.

In addition to paid campaign ads, private outlets are charging candidates for one-on-one interviews and appearances on talk shows.

“Election season has prompted Lebanese media outlets to offer packages that can reach up to $1.5 million per electoral list,” said Roula Mikhael, who heads Maharat, a civil society group monitoring Lebanon’s election.

The price lists are only recited verbally to avoid being traced but Maharat received a detailed breakdown from some campaigners.

“A month-and-a-half ago, a minute on a morning television programme could cost you $1,000 but the prices go up steadily as the elections get closer,” Mikhael said.

A minute of airtime on some privately owned television channels will rack up a $6,000 bill. Radio stations charge $3,000 for a 15-minute interview. Channels perceived as independent can charge more than those with clear political affiliations.

In a first, Lebanon’s new electoral law has set a spending limit on campaigns and established an electoral commission to monitor media appearances. Paying for coverage is not illegal but channels are required to identify sponsored media appearances and specify who paid for them.

Its chief, former judge Nadim Abdulmalak, said the amounts cited by Maharat were higher than those reported to the commission but he admitted outlets violated other parts of the legislation.

“Media organisations are not abiding by the law. They are not identifying paid advertisements or saying who placed the ad,” Abdulmalak said. “They are also, more generally, not fulfilling the requirement of presenting a weekly report to the commission of what ads they broadcast.”

The commission has struggled to properly flag violations. Its only member from outside the political elite resigned April 20, blaming a shortage of resources that left the body unable to monitor media, campaign ads, or spending.

At its headquarters, 25 employees silently scrutinised a mix of media. One unfurled a newspaper and squinted at the text. Another’s attention was glued to a laptop screen, jotting down how long candidates appear on air.

“As monitors, we’ve noticed that media outlets host some guests more than others based on their political affiliation,” said commission member Manal Ezzedine, 34. “There are some candidates who you’ve never heard of or seen because they don’t have media coverage.”

There are 597 candidates running for parliamentary office, including many newcomers who rail against rampant corruption and clientelism in Lebanon. Those first-time candidates say they struggle to get coverage because it’s too expensive.

“Who can pay $20,000 these days for half an hour on air, besides the traditional parties that we’ve known for years?” asked Laury Haytayan, a candidate running in Beirut on the Kulluna Watani list. “Elections can’t be for the wealthy only.”

Mikhael said the prices asked by Lebanese media outlets risked turning the elections into a race among the rich.

“Everyone knows Lebanese media have been going through a very serious financial crisis. Today, we’re returning to a situation where people with money are the only ones able to actually come to power in Lebanon, where the rich alone are allowed to have media appearances,” she said.

Lists such as Kulluna Watani and other non-traditional parties are targeting first-time voters — those who were not 21 in the 2009 election — through social media.

Raed Ataya, who is running in southern Lebanon on a list bringing together communists and local figures, announced his candidacy through a free live-streaming option online. He and fellow candidates were primarily funded by donations and could not afford the “ridiculous” media price lists.

“When we announced our list, we did so on Facebook Live, without a single media outlet present,” Ataya said.

(Agence France-Presse)