Lebanon to Seek UNESCO Recognition for Pioneering TV Archive

Beirut, Lebanon — For decades, Tele Liban has been a mainstay of Lebanese living rooms. Now the country is seeking UNESCO recognition for the archives of its pioneering Arab broadcaster. 

Information Minister Ziad Makary told AFP that Beirut would apply to have the full archives of Tele Liban added to the United Nations cultural body’s Memory of the World Register, which UNESCO says “aims to prevent the irrevocable loss of documentary heritage.” 

Tele Liban was “the first television (network) to be established in the Arab world on a state level,” Makary said, adding that Lebanon had the region’s “oldest audiovisual archive.” 

The collection includes footage that dates back “to World War II and the 1940s,” although Tele Liban did air its first program until 1959, the minister said from his Beirut office. 

Were it to join the register, it would sit alongside hundreds of other entries, spanning print, audiovisual, digital and other heritage from across the globe. 

Archives documents culture, politics

The only television channel in Lebanon until 1985, the broadcaster’s archive is brimming with years of history, politics and culture not only from Lebanon but across the Arab world, during tumultuous decades in the region. 

It counts more than 50,000 hours of recordings, from interviews and news programs to music concerts, including of Egypt’s revered 20th century singer Umm Kalthoum and French diva Dalida. 

The collection captured Lebanon’s “cultural and political life” and was unique in the country, Alfred Akar, Tele Liban’s head of archives, told AFP. 

In Lebanon, there is nostalgia for the now cash-strapped Tele Liban’s “golden age” during the 1960s and ’70s, when it featured prominent personalities on its programs that ranged from entertainment and comedy to drama. 

As sectarian tensions peaked and the country plunged into the grueling 1975-1990 civil war, Tele Liban became a witness to the country’s divisions and suffering. 

Makary noted the need to preserve history, pointing to “the archive’s importance in the collective memory and (its) cultural impact on the region.” 

Putting heritage on map

If successful, its entry on the UNESCO register would have great symbolic importance and put Lebanon’s “media heritage on the world map,” Makary said. 

The aim is to include not only Tele Liban’s archive but also that of the public radio and the National News Agency, Makary said, adding that work on the official submission would begin next month. 

Lebanon has two other entries on the Memory of the World Register: commemorative stela spanning more than three millennia at a site north of Beirut, and the Phoenician alphabet, which the U.N. body’s website describes as “the prototype for all alphabets in the world.”  

In 2010, work began on modernizing the Tele Liban archive and transferring it to updated equipment despite little financial support, in a country where dysfunctional public services have now been swallowed by a crushing four-year economic crisis. 

The digitization process is ongoing. 

Zaven Kouyoumdjian, author of two books on television including “Lebanon on Screen,” said Tele Liban was part of a modernizing effort in the Arab world and also “brought all Lebanese together.” 

The broadcaster’s archive is “a national treasure,” said the author and television personality. 

It “stores Lebanon’s cultural identity,” he told AFP. 

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