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Guess Which Latin American Dictator Just Got a Journalism Award

"...unquestionable and authentic commitment to support the freedom of peoples."

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- Hugo Chavez is getting a journalism award in Argentina.

The Venezuelan leader regularly clashes with critical media, but the University of La Plata is giving him its Rodolfo Walsh Prize on Tuesday for what it describes as his work giving people without a voice access to the airwaves and newspapers.

Chavez's government has bankrolled the growth of the Telesur network, providing a state-funded alternative to privately financed broadcast stations across Latin America.

He met Tuesday with his ally President Cristina Fernandez, who 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 activist groups.

The two presidents also plan to sign commercial accords dealing with food, transport and energy, and to visit a state-run factory where Argentina will build ships for Venezuela's oil industry.

Chavez's office said the accords include a deal to import thousands of Argentine cars, 600,000 tons of food and agricultural equipment, with a total investment of $400 million. Argentine companies 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.

At the National University of La Plata, the journalism faculty is honoring Chavez "for his unquestionable and authentic commitment to support the freedom of peoples."

Chavez said on arrival in Argentina that he is proud to receive the award, even though he has read "that the dictator Chavez doesn't deserve it."

"Here there is democracy, now there is, and lively I'm sure, very dynamic, with 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."

Venezuela also has "absolute freedom to criticize, absolute freedom of thought, absolute freedom of expression. It's just the bourgeoisie that wants to impose its voice. It doesn't want to hear the voice of the people. And we, Cristina as much as me, represent the voices of our peoples."

Venezuela's El Nacional newspaper criticized the award Tuesday, saying the journalism school must be ignorant of Chavez's continuing crackdown on independent media. "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 InterAmerican Press Association president, Gonzalo Marroquin, said in an interview that Chavez has proven to be a "clear enemy of freedom of the press."

"It would take a long time to enumerate the long chain of actions that Chavez has taken against the right of the Venezuelan people to receive information," Marroquin said. "Whoever believes in freedom of expression and the press should show it with actions. Chavez doesn't have a single action, not one, that shows he's a friend of the principles of freedom of expression or the press."

Chavez was invited in November to receive the award, and confirmed his acceptance only last week, journalism professor Claudio Gomez said in an interview. "We decided to give it to Chavez in virtue of 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 announced on the faculty's web site that the university created a new category of the Walsh award for Latin American leaders who are committed to giving a voice to people who are least heard from, and that she hoped for an open debate about his ideas.


Associated Press Writers Debora Rey and Almudena Calatrava contributed to this report.

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