How Lebanon’s independent hopefuls seek to bypass media barriers

Ziad Abi Chaker had a tried and tested plan for his campaign strategy in Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary election, in which he is running for a seat in Beirut’s first district.

The environmental engineer wanted to get airtime on mainstream television stations to present his proposed solutions to some of the country’s most pressing economic and political problems after consulting experts.

“But then I got a call from someone, who offered me three to four minutes of airtime for $25,000,” Abi Chaker told Al Jazeera, still baffled. “I said 25,000 what? Do you know what that amount of money can do in Lebanon? We can feed 25 families for at least a month.”

Lebanese will head to the polls on Sunday, almost three years into a crippling financial crisis that has pushed more than three-quarters of the population into poverty and decimated the value of the country’s currency.

The majority of Lebanon’s dozens of television channels, radio stations and news websites – and what is left of its once-thriving print press – are affiliated to its traditional political parties, with almost a third belonging to the country’s most prominent families.

Resentment towards Lebanon’s ruling parties and cronies has increased in recent years – and the traditional media has taken note of this, according to Jad Shahrour, communications officer at Skeyes, a Beirut-based rights watchdog. He said that while broadcasters would on occasion bring in independent candidates on their shows, they ultimately saw the May 15 election as a financial lifeline.

“The traditional media relied on political funding and has been struggling in recent years with shrinking budgets,” Shahrour said. “So they see the upcoming elections are an opportunity to make up for some of those losses.”

Abi Chaker said he was also approached by other staff from top media outlets who offered him even higher rates – some amounting to six figures – while news websites had packages that started at $10,000.

“They think all the candidates are like the guys in power who are already rich or have wealthy patrons,” Abi Chaker said. “It was a dead-end.”

But Abi Chaker found a way out. In March, he decided to turn his office’s meeting room, which he had used for years to work on his waste management and environmental community projects, into a podcast studio. He fully equipped it with a few cameras, microphones and a mixing board to launch Moumken, Arabic for “possible”.

Abi Chaker’s large social media following helped him promote the podcast and reach people within Lebanon and the diaspora, as he discussed policy issues – from the lack of an independent judiciary and the need for universal healthcare, to restructuring the country’s comatose banking and electricity sectors.

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