Director-General of UNESCO visits the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (2 – 4 May 2006)From 2 to 4 May 2006, the Director-General of UNESCO, Mr Koïchiro Matsuura, undertook his second official visit to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, on the occasion of the celebration of the World Press Freedom Day. Together with H.E. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Director-General also participated in the Award Ceremony of the 2006 UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize to the Lebanese journalist Ms May Chidiac.
In their bilateral meeting, President Rajapaksa expressed his gratitude to the Director-General for having chosen Colombo as the venue for the celebration of World Press Freedom Day 2006 in recognition of Sri Lanka’s achievements in the promotion of independent and pluralistic media. President Rajapaksa and Mr Matsuura shared the view that bilateral cooperation between UNESCO and Sri Lanka was making strong headway, particularly in the areas of education, cultural heritage and communication and information. The Director-General underscored the importance of addressing quality education and particularly the training of teachers through distance education; he said that UNESCO, through its Office in New Delhi, stood ready to work with Sri Lanka in this area. In this regard, the President informed Mr Matsuura of the need to train English language teachers.
The Director-General briefed the President of the progress made towards the establishment of the Tsunami Early Warning System in the Indian Ocean and praised the measures taken by Sri Lanka at the national level to that end. While appreciating the active participation of Sri Lanka in UNESCO’s World Heritage Programme, Mr Matsuura expressed the hope that the same kind of cooperation would be established with regard to the preservation of the nation’s rich intangible cultural heritage. He also informed the President that UNESCO’s cooperation with Sri Lanka in the field of communication and information had been further enhanced through the setting-up of a network of eight Community Multimedia Centres that strengthen communication and information facilities at the level of local communities, thereby allowing for the social empowerment of the disadvantaged. As a result of the success of this project, it is now being expanded in other Asian countries, he said. The Director-General also reiterated his strong condemnation of the killing of journalists for political purposes.
In his opening remarks at the Award Ceremony of the 2006 UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, the Director-General said that “media freedom and freedom of expression make a difference in the sad statistics of extreme poverty. Freedom of expression is the core human right in a rights-based approach to the eradication of poverty, since it serves as a trigger and catalyst for the realization of other basic human rights. It is precisely through the exercise and practice of freedom of expression that the disadvantaged are enabled to recognize and claim protection of their human rights”. He went on to say that “the award of the World Press Freedom Prize has become an integral part of the annual celebrations of World Press Freedom Day. It is one of the ways in which UNESCO expresses its determined commitment to freedom of speech and to those who suffer from repression and persecution in the exercise of their profession as journalists”.
During his meeting with Mr Anura Priyadarsana Yapa, Minister of Mass Media and Information, Mr Matsuura paid tribute to the Sri Lankan Government for the excellent organizational arrangements to ensure the success of the celebration of World Press Freedom Day in Colombo. He spoke of the success of the Media Resource and Training Centre that UNESCO established in Jaffna. A similar centre will also be set-up in Colombo, he said, which will be financed from the Organization’s extrabudgetary resources and implemented with the collaboration of the UNESCO New Delhi Office. In addition to giving journalists and media professionals access to telecommunication systems and information technology, the Centre could provide the necessary capacity-building for journalists and media professionals, help to promote ethics and professional standards in journalism, and assist the development of pluralistic and independent mass media.
The meeting of the Director-General with Mr Susil Premajayantha, Minister of Education, Chairperson of the Sri Lankan National Commission for UNESCO and Sri Lanka’s Representative on the Executive Board, largely focused on cooperation in the field of education. They also discussed some matters examined at the last session of the Executive Board, including respect for freedom of expression and respect for sacred beliefs and values and religious and cultural symbols.
With Mr Mangala Samaraweera, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Ports and Aviation, discussions focused on UNESCO’s successful cooperation with Sri Lanka, particularly in the field of communication. The Director-General noted with great satisfaction that Sri Lanka, with the support of the Organization, has been leading the way in the field of community broadcasting for development purposes and pioneered the world’s first Community Multimedia Centre in Kothmale, the concept of which is now used all around the world. Mr Matsuura also informed Mr Samaraweera that the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural heritage had now come into force and encouraged his Government to proceed with its ratification. The Minister assured the Director-General that he would personally look into the matter and expedite the process of ratification as appropriate.
During the visit, the Director-General had a joint meeting about UNESCO-related matters in Sri Lanka with officials of various Ministries, who presented him with the country’s sector priorities. Mr Matsuura also gave an interview to national television and visited the Old Town of Galle and its fortifications, which is inscribed on the Organization’s World Heritage List. Galle is the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in South and South-East Asia, illustrating the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions.