Why are Lebanon’s commercial broadcasters smiling? It’s because they can charge candidates the price of a BMW or small apartment to appear on TV.
The election Sunday was Lebanon’s first parliamentary vote since 2009 and the half dozen or so commercial broadcasters are doing their best to both promote and hinder democracy by reportedly charging candidates as much as US$250,000 for a long, prime-time appearance.
While democracy is served because the candidates get their faces in front of voters, the reality is that only candidates who can afford the outrageous TV prices are the ones who are independently wealthy, have wealthy patrons or are heavily subsidized by the big-name parties that want to keep their lock on parliament.
Several candidates told The Globe and Mail that payments to broadcasters were perfectly routine and sadly legal. Kholoud Wattar Kassem, an independent female candidate in the Beruit 2 (West Beirut) voting district, the single largest in the country, said she could not afford to get on TV during the campaign. “Most of us can’t find that kind of money,” she said. “We would need US$2-million to run a high-profile campaign.”
Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper reported on Saturday that commercial broadcasters have been charging candidates “upward of US$6,000 per minute of airtime – between US$150,000 and US$250,000 per interview – with the result that wealthier, traditional politicians will have a better chance of reaching voters.”
Radio stations also charge candidates for exposure, though at much cheaper rates than those charged by the TV stations.
An Ipsos poll revealed that half of voters still rely on TV for their primary source of news. Unwealthy candidates, however, are not entirely shut out of the media-exposure game. In the past Lebanese election, nine years ago, social media was almost entirely absent. Today, most candidates, especially the younger ones, are using Facebook, Twitter and other sites to try to recruit voters.
Lebanon’s commercial broadcasters, most of which are loyal to, and financed by, individual political parties, are required by law to identify sponsored media appearances and reveal who paid for them. In practice, the broadcasters do not fully meet their reporting commitments to Lebanon’s electoral commission, according to local media reports.