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Follow the Money: The informal channels of Lebanese media funding

Georgia Dagher,
Sami Zoughaib,
Sami Atallah

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The media is a key actor in shaping public opinion. Its role is to ensure that citizens are informed about social, economic, and political developments, and it plays a significant role in affirming opinions or propagating new narratives.

Lebanon is known for its diverse media sector. It has eight TV stations, over 40 radio stations, and around 110 licensed print outlets. More recently, there has been a surge of digital news platform reflecting the diversity of political options and social preferences. However, looking beneath the surface, the media sector reflects another reality where confessional politics and interest groups seek to shape public opinion. As citizens tend to consume the media they are aligned with politically, this reinforces their beliefs and biases, leading to more polarization particularly in times of crisis.

Analyzing the ownership and revenue structure of the media is key, as they influence the narratives and public discourse around political events. The media has been a victim of powerful interest groups—such as the banking sector—and has been utilized to spread misinformation on the economy and reform Lebanon is in dire need of, as recently shown by the coverage on the IMF financial recovery plan.

Despite some regulations such as the Press Law (1962) and Audio-Visual Media Law (1994), the Lebanese state has little control over media outlets. Media outlets tend to rely on political or foreign investors, and through this, political parties have the power to influence the leading media outlets and frame information to their benefit. 

This creates a structural problem in the media system, where outlets have little interest in producing quality journalism to increase readership or viewership, as long as they can rely on large investors as a source of revenues. While the Press Law (1962) gives the Ministry of Information the authority to monitor the finances of the media and ensure that their only profits come from advertising, subscriptions, and sales, it has failed to do so, thus maintaining the lack of transparency in media outlets’ funding and revenue structure. 

In light of this, this report aims to identify political and commercial revenue streams of the Lebanese media sector. To this end, we assess media outlets’ operating and production costs, commercial revenues through advertisement, as well as other informal funding channels, such as private, political, and foreign investments. In this way, we are able to gain more insight into the structure of the media sector in Lebanon. 

We show that advertisement revenues have covered less than 10% of the TV sector’s operating costs since the onset of the crisis, decreasing from approximately $80 million in 2018 to $9 million in 2022. The same trend is observed across other types of media. This suggests that these gaps are covered by other sources of informal funding.

However, investigating these other sources of funding is challenging, as the media sector’s financing is opaque. Media outlets have been reluctant to share information on their revenue structure and funders. 

We find that the Lebanese media sector has benefitted from multiple streams of informal and politically-motivated revenues. These include investments by the banking sector, large profits realized during parliamentary elections, and advantageous loans offered by the Central Bank in 2016.  

This has significant implications on access to unbiased information. The reliance of media outlets on funding from the banking sector and political parties forces them to propagate a certain narrative that maintains the status-quo. Further, for political and financial elites to maintain their hegemony over public discourse, they must undermine independent media outlets, which have been the victims of lawsuits, intimidation, and threats. This reality has set the stage for the erosion of freedom of speech. 

This report is structured in four sections. The first highlights how the media sector was hit by the financial crisis and how this has impacted their operating costs, production, and human capacity. The second section focuses on the advertising market and finds that advertising revenues have been on a sharp decline since the onset of the financial crisis. We zoom in on the TV sector and show the extent to which financial institutions and political parties dominated advertisement in 2018 and 2022. The third section focuses on the informal sources of funding, which include private and political investments. We then conclude with the implications these sources of funding have on freedom of speech.

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