If anyone was laboring under the illusion that Venezuela's fiery leader Hugo Chavez would pay a price for his support of fellow beleaguered autocrats-- Libyan leader Moammar Qadhafi or Syria's Bashar al-Assad-- he stands corrected. Chavez remains the darling of radical politics in Latin America. He is also its banker.
Now Chavez adds a surrealistic award to a trophy room that already includes the Qadhafi Human Rights Award. He is receiving the Rodolfo Walsh prize for Advancing Press Freedom. The award is named after the martyred Argentine journalist who took on the Argentine junta in 1977 and paid with his life. The award was conferred by Argentina's La Plata University, alma mater to Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her late husband Nestor. who preceded her as president.
The award elicited protest at home. Chavez has established a state-funded television network whose editorial balance policy resembles the Soviet era Pravda. Additionally, the Venezuelan leader has closed down 30 radio stations and 6 television channels and seeks to intimidate other broadcasting media by revoking the licenses of those who criticize his administration.
The Venezuelan National Press Workers Association protested the award, claiming that it had presented to the Inter-American commission on human rights evidence of the actions taken by President Chavez to promote censorship and self-censorship amongst Venezuelan journalists. They added that Chavez' own information minister Andrés Izarrahad openly declared that the government's aspiration was to establish "communications hegemony".
This has been longstanding policy. In March 2005, Washington Post editor and columnist Jackson Diehl wrote how Chavez's Censorship worked by citing the new penal code.
"Start with Article 147: 'Anyone who offends with his words or in writing or in any other way disrespects the President of the Republic or whomever is fulfilling his duties will be punished with prison of 6 to 30 months if the offense is serious and half of that if it is light…the term will be increased by a third if the offense is made publicly.'
La Plata University defended the award, claiming that Chavez was instrumental in breaking "media monopolies" in Latin America and promoting "popular communication".
Orwellian newspeak could not have put it better.