Debating the merits of a press prize for Venezuela's Chávez

A top Argentine university awarded a press prize to Hugo Chávez, who has pumped millions of dollars into community radio and TV stations. He has closed another 40.

Jorge Araujo/AP
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez holds up the Rodolfo Walsh prize he was awarded by the University of La Plata in La Plata, Argentina, Tuesday March 29. Chavez received the Rodolfo Walsh journalism award "for his unquestionable and authentic commitment" to giving people without voice access to the airwaves and newspapers. The statue reads in Spanish "Operation Massacre," the title of Walsh's 1957 book.

Prompting an international debate on journalism philosophy appeared exactly what an Argentine university wanted when it awarded a prestigious press prize this week to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

“The prize we are giving is not neutral, it is not aseptic ... you head a profound process of emancipation in Latin America,” the dean of La Plata University's journalism program, Florencia Saintout, said to Mr. Chávez during the award ceremony Tuesday in Buenos Aires.

Why did he get the award? Ms. Saintout lauded Chávez’s commitment to giving a voice to people once lacking media access.

Chávez in 2005 helped create Telesur, a state-funded television network that covers regional and global news. His government has also showered millions of dollars into building a new network of “popular media,” supporting community radio and television stations throughout Venezuela. Most of the largest barrios surrounding Caracas now have their own locally produced programming backed by state funding as a result.

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That Chávez has also successfully snuffed out most privately owned media from Venezuela’s airwaves was likely not ignored by Ms. Saintout, but rather viewed as a crucial part of the “emancipation process” she highlighted.

“It’s worth pointing out that it is not a prize for a democratic leader nor for someone defending freedom of expression,” says Gregorio Salazar, the regional director for the International Federation of Journalists.

Still, the award rankled critics across the region. In Venezuela, while opposition views and satire are alive and well in independent newspapers and websites, Chavez’s control of the airwaves is nearly complete. He is notorious for forcing opposition-owned Radio Caracas Televisión Internacional (RCTV) off the air in 2007 by refusing to renew its broadcast license. His government has silenced nearly 40 radio and TV stations from the air, citing similar licensing issues.

Mr. Salazar called the award an absolute “ignominy,” adding that Chávez "has used justice as an instrument to persecute the free press."

Criticism echoed from Argentina, where lawmakers spoke out against the award, to Venezuela, where a leading daily newspaper called the award "absurd," to the United States, where media experts questioned the prize.

"It is disingenuous for a journalism school to honor a leader who supports popular media but who is also a declared enemy of traditional independent media, as Chávez is in Venezuela," said John Dinges, a professor of journalism at Columbia University in New York, in an e-mail response to questions. "You can't separate the two, as if attacks on independent media (those the government doesn't control) should somehow not be construed as limiting the freedom of expression vital to democracy."

Venezuela's journalists' guild also contested the prize, sending an open letter of protest to Ms. Saintout of La Plata University.

"Our union ... has borne witness ... to multiple actions taken under the government of President Chávez to create censorship and self-censorship among journalists and independent media and establish in Venezuela what was termed by current Information Minister Andrés Izarra as communications hegemony," the Venezuelan National Press Workers' Association wrote.

Meanwhile, on a day in which most of the international news coverage of Venezuela was focused on Chávez's journalism award, Venezuelans were talking about a massive power failure that knocked out the capital’s metro and paralyzed traffic for most of the day.

A master of political theater, Chávez no doubt relished the spotlight during his four-nation swing through Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Colombia.

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