The decision of an Argentinean university to award Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with a prize for promoting freedom of the press prompted an international outcry of disbelief and criticism. On March 29, Chavez visited the University of La Plata to accept the journalism department’s Rodolfo Walsh prize for “his unquestionable and authentic commitment” to expand media access for those in Venezuela without a voice.
Indeed, Chavez has improved media access for those who are anxious and patient enough to listen to his interminable Sunday discourses on Alo Presidente or follow the latest ideological wrinkles in the Bolivarian Revolution. But he has also worked tirelessly to stifle the voices of opposition in Venezuela by crowding out and shutting down private broadcast networks.
Inter-American Press Association president Gonzalo Marroquín has condemned Chavez as a “clear enemy of freedom of the press.”
Since 1999, Chavez has forced 32 radio stations off the air and has sought to remove all opposition TV channels. He pushed the opposition RCTV channel off the airwaves in 2007 and ordered cable companies to pull the plug on RCTV International for refusing to air his speeches and other mandatory programming. The majority owner of the lone opposition channel, Globovision, fled the country to avoid arrest on charges of conspiracy. Chavez has also supported a bill that punishes the “abusive exercise of freedom of information and opinion” with prison terms.
The awarding of the prize to Chavez, who is also the proud recipient of the 2004 Al-Qadhafi International Prize for Human Rights, highlights the inroads Chavez has made in Argentina.
Upon landing in Argentina, Chavez exuberantly proclaimed, “Here there is democracy!” He accepted the Rodolfo Walsh award with great satisfaction and asserted that it was “just the bourgeoisie that wants to impose its voice. It doesn’t want to hear the voice of the people. And we, [Argentine President Cristina Kirchner] as much as me, represent the voices of our peoples.”
Any government that receives the Chavez stamp of approval should seriously reexamine its own commitment to democracy.
President Kirchner, who considers Chavez a key regional ally, is embroiled in her own battle against the press. She is currently championing a law that would force private cable TV providers to include channels run by union and other pro-government activists. An editorial by El Nacional, one of the few remaining anti-Chavez newspapers in Venezuela, remarked, “That a South American university doesn’t know about this grave situation and dares to honor this military leader with the Rodolfo Walsh Prize says much about the destruction of values that the Kirchners have imposed on the Argentine nation.” Not all Argentineans are on the same page as President Kirchner, but it is not their opinions that are being transformed into policy.
Propelled by Venezuela’s oil money and aided by an adoring minority, Venezuela’s caudillo [strongman] continues his relentless assault on freedom of the press, on representative democracy, and on the U.S. at home and abroad with little counter-pressure from the Obama Administration.
Ashley Mosteller is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm