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Venezuela's Chavez receives press freedom award in Argentina

By Brian Byrnes, For CNN
  • Venezuelan president receives prestigious award honoring press freedom
  • Chavez government in 2005 helped create Telesur, a state-funded TV network
  • Telesur has been accused of one-sided pro-Chavez coverage
  • Argentine journalists slam choice of Chavez, saying he stifles press freedom in Venezuela

Buenos Aires, Argentina (CNN) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was given a prestigious journalism award in Argentina on Tuesday, despite his frequent and outspoken criticism of media outlets at home and abroad.

Chavez received the Rodolfo Walsh journalism award from Argentina's Universidad Nacional de La Plata "for his unquestionable and authentic commitment to support the freedom of peoples."

During a raucous, two-hour acceptance speech in front of hundreds of students and the university's journalism faculty, Chavez accused large media outlets of "manipulation" and said that in Venezuela today, there is "more freedom of expression and the press than any time in our history."

The Rodolfo Walsh award, given to people who advance the cause of press freedom, is named in honor of the late Argentine journalist who was killed in 1977 during Argentina's "Dirty War," when military leaders systematically eliminated dissident voices. Walsh was also a co-founder of Prensa Latina, Cuba's state-run news agency. Past award winners include Argentine journalists Joaquin Morales Sola and Tomas Eloy Martinez as well as Bolivian president Evo Morales, a close ally of Chavez.

Flush with petrodollars, Chavez's government in 2005 helped create Telesur, a state-funded television network that covers news from throughout Latin America and the globe. Telesur has been championed as an alternative voice to privately owned media conglomerates, but also criticized for its one-sided coverage of Chavez. Ironically, at Tuesday's award ceremony, private television networks were prohibited from broadcasting the event with their own cameras and instead had to air the signal provided by Telesur.

Journalists and politicians in Argentina criticized the choice of Chavez as the award recipient, claiming that he has continually worked to silence his critics and suppress freedom of the press throughout Venezuela.

"Chavez has closed more than 30 radio stations and six television channels and constantly threatens to take away broadcast licenses of any media that is at all critical of his administration," said Jorge Macri, a congressman from Buenos Aires province. "That's why I consider it a lack of respect for the people who have received this award previously that it is now being awarded to the Venezuelan president."

The award ceremony in Argentina came two days after protesters prevented trucks carrying Argentina's two largest daily newspapers, Clarin and La Nacion, from leaving the printing press. The action further inflamed an ongoing feud between Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and the Argentine media, which she has accused of unfairly criticizing her administration. Opposition leaders claim that the government authorized the blockade. On Monday, Clarin published a blank white page on its cover to protest the action.

"The Argentine government needs to take immediate measures to sanction this disregard and violation of a judicial ruling that constitutes an attack on freedom of the press," said Claudio Paolillo of the Inter American Press Society.

Earlier Tuesday, Kirchner met with Chavez at the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires, where they signed a series of economic accords. Kirchner skipped Chavez's award ceremony at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata -- which she and her late husband, former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, attended in the 1970s -- to meet with U2 frontman Bono, who is in Argentina for three concerts this week. According to a government spokesman, Bono asked Argentina's support in developing medical vaccines to eliminate diseases like malaria and for Kirchner's help in encouraging fellow G-20 leaders to demand that oil and mining companies publicly reveal their financial status.