Hugo Chavez, winner of a journalism award?
The Venezuelan leader regularly clashes with critical media, but Argentina's University of La Plata was giving him its Rodolfo Walsh Prize on Tuesday "for his unquestionable and authentic commitment" to giving people without a voice access to the airwaves and newspapers.
Chavez has bankrolled the growth of the Telesur network, providing a state-funded alternative to privately financed broadcast stations across Latin America.
He has a sure ally in Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, who sees privately owned media groups as a bigger threat to freedom of expression than state control of airwaves or newsprint. Fernandez is trying to transform Argentina's communications industry through a law that would break up media monopolies and force cable TV providers to include channels run by unions, Indians and other activists.
"Here there is democracy," Chavez said after arriving in Argentina. He praised the country for having an "open debate just like in Venezuela, and a president who is an absolute defender of human rights and freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of thought."
The two presidents also signed commercial accords dealing with food, transport and energy, and they visited a state-run factory where Argentina will build ships for Venezuela's oil industry.
Venezuela will import thousands of Argentine cars and 600,000 tons of food and agricultural equipment, representing a $400 million investment, Chavez's office said. Argentine companies also will transfer their technology and help build about 20 factories in Venezuela to manufacture small motors and refrigerators.
In exchange, Venezuela will keep supplying Argentina with oil.
The choice of Chavez _ who is accused of silencing opposition-aligned media in Venezuela _ for the award is controversial.
Inter American Press Association president Gonzalo Marroquin said in an interview that the Venezuelan leader is a "clear enemy of freedom of the press."
"It would take a long time to enumerate the long chain of actions Chavez has taken against the right of the Venezuelan people to receive information," he said.
Chavez began his tour of Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Colombia only days after U.S. President Barack Obama skipped these countries in his first visit to South America, a goodwill tour overshadowed by the U.S. attacks Obama ordered on Moammar Gadhafi's forces in Libya. Both Chavez and Fernandez strongly criticized the air attacks Tuesday.
Chavez is a declared ally of Gadhafi, who honored the Venezuelan leader in 2004 with his Al-Gadhafi International Prize for Human Rights, an honor he shares with Fidel Castro (1998), Evo Morales (2006) and Daniel Ortega (2009).
As for the journalism award, Chavez said he is proud to receive it, even though some say "that the dictator Chavez doesn't deserve it."
"One must fight the media dictatorship. The dominant classes always manipulate the communications media and trick the people through powerful psychological campaigns," he said.
Chavez's government forced the opposition RCTV channel off airwaves in 2007 by refusing to renew its broadcast license. The telecommunications agency then ordered cable companies to drop RCTV International last year for refusing to carry Chavez's speeches and other mandatory programming. The government also cited licensing issues in forcing 32 radio stations and two small TV stations off the air.
The majority owner of Globovision, Venezuela's only remaining anti-Chavez TV channel, fled the country rather than be jailed pending a conspiracy trial for keeping two-dozen new vehicles at one of his homes. Guillermo Zuloaga, who also owns several car dealerships, said Chavez ordered bogus charges.
Venezuela still has independent newspapers and web sites, including the newspaper El Nacional, which on Tuesday editorialized against the award.
"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. Walsh was a victim of military repression and his example is now stained absurdly," the paper wrote.
Walsh was an investigative journalist who co-founded Cuba's Prensa Latina press agency and later joined Argentina's leftist Montoneros guerrilla group. He died in a military ambush in 1977.
Journalism professor Claudio Gomez said in an interview that the faculty decided to award Chavez the prize for "his work for popular communication, for example by creating the Telesur channel. This doesn't mean that we agree with other measures his government has taken against critical mass media."
Dean Florencia Saintout said the university created a new category of the Walsh award for Latin American leaders committed to giving a voice to people who are least heard from, and that she hoped for an open debate about his ideas.
"This prize we are giving is not neutral, it is not aseptic ... you head a profound process of emancipation in Latin America," Saintout said of Chavez.
Associated Press Writers Debora Rey and Almudena Calatrava contributed to this report.