Lebanon News

Culture minister tackles censorship, smuggling

Culture Minister Raymond Areiji arrives at the Parliament in Beirut, Wednesday, March 19, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Censorship has no place in the Lebanese cultural milieu, Culture Minister Raymond Areiji told The Daily Star Monday. “I am against any censorship on cultural events, and I mean movies, songs or anything else. In a country where politicians can say everything they want, insulting each other and harming national unity, it is not logical or healthy to have censorship on cultural products.”

Controversial scenes in Western movies should no longer be edited out for Lebanese audiences, he added. “It’s been done for 30 years. But today when you cut a scene, you can find it immediately on YouTube. And when you cut a scene, you make people want to watch it even more. You emphasize it in a way the director didn’t intend.”

Reassessing censorship in the cultural sphere is just one of many projects Areiji hopes to tackle before a new president is elected and his mandate expires.

The Zghorta native revealed that his ministry was working on an ambitious new website that would feature more than 1,000 works by Lebanese “grand masters.”

“These works are all held in the three official palaces” to which the public have little access, he said. “In collaboration with ALBA [Academie Libanaise des Beaux Arts] we’re creating a virtual museum where we can expose our collection.”

Areiji is applying his 25-year career in law to his new post as minister. The cultural arena lacks a clear and modern legal framework, he said.

“I’m working on a new law for the protection of archaeological sites,” he explained, “and many other regulations that are lacking in this ministry.”

As Lebanon has no dedicated Antiquities Ministry, questions of archaeology and preservation fall under Areiji’s mandate. Arbitrating between developers seeking to build glossy high-rises and conservationists hoping to protect ancient ruins has been one of the “main issues” his ministry faces, he said.

His predecessor, Gaby Layoun, sided with construction companies in a series of hotly disputed cases and drew particularly sharp criticism when he permitted the destruction of a Roman Hippodrome to make way for an exclusive new development.

“We must find a balance between protecting our heritage and progress in the economy and real estate sectors,” Areiji said.

However, as with every part of life in Lebanon, the Syrian crisis has complicated the already difficult task of documenting and managing antiquities in the country. Since the war erupted, Areiji said that the smuggling of Syrian antiques across Lebanese border has become an increasingly serious issue.

“When objects are seized by Customs agents at the border, we try to identify their origin,” he said. “We go through our databases and check with Interpol to see if we have any record of the object.”

Moreover, the Syrian war has negatively impacted Lebanese artists. Musicians in particular, he said, are finding it harder to book well-paid gigs. “I have received a lot of delegations of musicians who are complaining of unfair competition with Syrians. If a Lebanese musician is paid $100 a night, a Syrian artist will play for $20. You cannot compete.”

While Layoun faced allegations of using his post for personal gain, Areiji said he has seen no evidence of malfeasance since he took over the post in February. “I have a lot of confidence in this team,” he said. “I have not seen any kind of corruption, but if I do, you can be sure that I will be very tough ... I will not allow any corruption in this ministry.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 29, 2014, on page 3.




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