Fiscal follies

The telecommunications minister should stop usurping others’ roles

Minister of Telecommunications Boutros Harb

With the World Cup just having finished, Lebanese fans were glued to their television sets savoring each fantastic goal and glorious football moment. But many missed the opening matches: they hadn’t purchased expensive subscriptions from Sama or MK Electronics-Echosat, the exclusive providers for land, internet and satellite viewing of the World Cup in Lebanon. Last minute efforts to secure broadcasting rights from Qatar-based beIN Sports to show the games via Tele Liban, Lebanon’s free public television station, were unsuccessful. For the first 11 games, Lebanon’s football fans were scrambling desperately in search of a way to watch their favorite teams. As luck would have it, Minister of Telecommunications Boutros Harb found a simple solution: use revenues from the country’s two mobile phone companies to pay for rights to the games. This was welcome news to the Lebanese who would no longer be coerced to fork over hard earned liras every night to view the matches at their favorite establishment or pay the service providers the cost of subscription. The minister achieved a popular result, but at a cost that would have any bureaucrat or accountant — or this magazine — fuming. How can one minister simply commandeer revenues intended for the national treasury to pay for a month-long football festival?

Yes, the Lebanese do love to watch the world’s most popular game and support their team. And yes, the amount paid from mobile revenues isn’t a significant figure, eating government revenues of some $56,000 for each of the 53 matches shown, based on the total $3 million paid.

But if the Lebanese do indeed have the right to watch the World Cup, as Minister of Information Ramzi Jreij has asserted, whether on Tele Liban or another local channel, then a mechanism to pay for the cost of broadcasting must be found. The most transparent and democratic way to do this would be through a budget that clearly allocates a maximum amount to be spent on such broadcasts, and vests authority to strike a deal in a specific public office.

Lebanon has failed to pass a budget since 2005. Yet the country desperately needs better fiscal management as it stares down a new primary account deficit, demands for higher public sector salaries and the perennial problem of managing its public debt, now north of $60 billion or 140 percent of GDP.

To address this challenge Lebanon’s politicians must pass a state budget to address the next fiscal year, and begin serious planning for subsequent years as well. The Ministry of Finance’s draft budget from last month is a good start, but the proposal did not exert any attempt at limiting the fiscal year deficit nor, at a minimum, maintain balance between the projected expenditures and the expected growth rate.

Beyond the bare minimum of passing a budget, fiscal processes must also be respected. Specifically, one minister should not be able to divert revenues intended for the treasury to special projects — precisely what Harb appears to be doing. Neither should any minister be allowed to delay the transfer of receipts to the finance ministry, as was done under previous telecommunications ministers Charbel Nahas and Nicolas Sehnaoui.

Lebanon is in dire need of sound fiscal policy, and that means the government proposing and the Parliament passing yearly budgets, and the finance minister keeping account of all monies. Telecommunications ministers should stop their interference — even when watching the World Cup is at stake.

*

Top