The Socialist Party, led by Prime Minister Edi Rama, won a third unprecedented term on April 25th, securing 48.7 per cent of the national vote and 74 deputies from 140 seats in parliament.
Data analyzed by BIRN suggest that the SP’s success may be partly the product of a massive pre-election televised advertising campaign, for which millions of euros have been spent.
However, the ruling Socialist Party was not the only party to spend large sums on television commercials before the election.
Their main rivals in the opposition, the Democratic Party, also had a powerful propaganda campaign, making the April 25th elections one of the most expensive in Albania’s history.
“A funding for political ads in such record values, mainly from the two major parties, SP and PD has an extraordinary impact, not only on the editorial line but also on the voters, ”Said Elvin Luku, Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Tirana.
“Albanian media, including national ones, have proven for years that they are more vulnerable to money than to objectivity and impartiality in reporting,He added.
However, large expenditures on advertising would not have been possible if the televisions that broadcast them had complied with the electoral code. The code limits the total time of political advertising on a television to 90 minutes for each political party.
The Audiovisual Media Authority, AMA, the media regulatory body, repeatedly called on the State Election Commissioner during the campaign to take action against law-breaking television stations; however, the commissioner did not impose sanctions.
“The main problem is that political parties do not have transparency during the most important period, ie during the election campaign period., ”Said Rigels Xhemollari, executive director of the Civic Center organization.
“During the election campaign, we do not know, we can not measure, we can not react at a time when political parties use television time in the media, ”He added.
Tenfold the cost
TV commercials have always been one of the biggest spending items during election campaigns in Albania. In the 2017 parliamentary elections, the two major parties, the Democrats and the Socialists, spent ALL 62.2 million (€ 506,325) on political advertising.
Expenditures on political advertising and live broadcasts accounted for 31 percent of the total expenditures of political parties during the election campaign. In an effort to limit these costs and balance the race between large and small parties, experts proposed banning political advertising ahead of the April elections.
However, the Special Electoral Reform Commission set up in 2020 to reform the electoral code ignored the proposals.
Instead of limiting spending on political television advertising during the campaign, data analyzed by BIRN show that the two major parties have increased spending tenfold, likely setting a record for the most costly campaign of all time in Albania.
Using media monitoring data published by the Audiovisual Media Authority, BIRN was able to estimate that political parties broadcast 5 hours and 45 minutes of political advertisements on television during the campaign, from March 26 to April 24.
Most of these ads were paid for by the Socialist Party, which aired 47.7 percent of all political ads aired on television during the campaign.
The opposition Democratic Party aired 39.8 percent. The Socialist Movement for Integration was third in distance, with 4.2 percent of the total advertising time aired during the campaign.
Using media tariffs submitted by the media to the Central Election Commission during the campaign, BIRN estimated that the parties spent about 6.5m euros on television advertising during the campaign.
The Socialist Party was more generous, withdrawing 3.1 million euros from its pocket for TV commercials, followed by the Democratic Party led by Lulzim Basha, which spent 2.5 million euros.
In total, the Socialists and Democrats account for about 87.2 percent of television advertising spending during the campaign. Ten other parties and coalitions running in the parliamentary elections broadcast advertisements costing 870,062 euros.
Rigels Xhemollari compares political parties with large corporations that through advertising packages censor critical media reporting. He said that the media should hold Edi Rama and Lulzim Basha accountable.
“This is a phenomenon that to some extent affects free journalism“, Xhemollari emphasized.
The big beneficiaries of the spending for the advertising campaign of the two big parties were 6 televisions, owned by 3 media companies: Klan, Top Media and Vizion Plus.
They received about 3.4m euros for broadcast advertising, or 51 per cent of all advertising spending during the campaign. The television station that broadcasted the most commercials was TV Klan, which earned about 1.31m euros from political advertising, followed by Top Channel.
““Televisions do not treat political parties equally,” said Xhemollari. “If a television station has received a lot of commercials from a political party, then any reaction to this party during the election campaign will be biased and will probably be truncated.He added.
Luku stressed that the money spent on political advertising during the campaign accounts for about 17 percent of the annual advertising market in Albania.
“More than 87% of this amount (6.5 million euros) has been spent by the two major parties, SP and PD, creating an extraordinary imbalance of media presence in relation to other parties, especially small parties, which directly affects to the voter, ”he said.
CEC powerless against media barons
The Electoral Code states that the relationship of political parties with the audiovisual media during the campaign is regulated by law and limited in terms of the coverage given to political parties and the advertisements they may broadcast.
The law requires that the political entity that broadcasts the advertisement be identified. Political advertisements must be broadcast between 15:00 and 17:00 and 21:00 to 24:00, and no audiovisual broadcaster may broadcast more than 90 minutes of advertisements to a party during the 30-day campaign period.
However, data analyzed by BIRN show that broadcasters generally ignored the restriction on advertising volume during the campaign.
Of the 17 televisions surveyed by BIRN, 11 media outlets aired more than 90 minutes of commercials for the ruling Socialist Party and 9 for the opposition Democrats.
On average, each television station aired 149 minutes of commercials for the Socialist Party and 125 minutes of commercials for the Democratic Party.
Commenting on the failure of the State Election Commissioner to take action against the media, Luku stressed that this is not the first time that public institutions or agencies remain passive and powerless when it comes to sanctions against the media that are openly in violation of the law or bylaws
“The weight of the Commissioner is very small towards the media owners, who, if we analyze their property structure we notice that they are not simply and only media shareholders, but extended in the field of construction, telecommunications, gas, oil, mining, etc., ie with very close ties to leaders at the highest political level, ”He said.
“Sanctions against the media become even more difficult for the SEC when it is known that this overrun is done for and in favor of the two largest political parties“, Concluded Luku./ Reporter.al