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The department of journalism at the public National University of La Plata (UNLP) has presented a controversial award to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, spotlighting the close ties between politics and journalism advocated by university authorities who are in sync with the national government. The award sparked a debate on the role of higher education institutions in preparing future journalists.

President Chávez, who has been repeatedly accused of harassing media outlets in Venezuela that are critical of him, received the university’s Rodolfo Walsh award for his role in strengthening freedom of the press in South America. Ironically, this took place just as Argentina has been experiencing the worst confrontation between the national government and the media since its return to democracy, involving the largest media conglomerate in the country.

Rodolfo Walsh was a writer, journalist and political activist who was kidnapped and killed under the military dictatorship that governed Argentina between 1976 and 1983. Intellectuals and journalists who are not identified with the government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner described the school’s decision to give Chávez the Rodolfo Walsh distinction —traditionally awarded to prestigious journalists and researchers in the field of social communication since its creation in 1997 as “a provocation”.

The UNLP is one of about 50 publicly-financed institutions in the country and one of the most prestigious. Since its foundation in 1905 it has given the city of La Plata, 60 km away from Buenos Aires, the flavor of a university town. At the moment it has 90,000 students and about 4,500 graduates each year. Its School of Journalism was created in the 1930´s. About 900 students enroll there every year.

The head of the UNLP department of journalism, Florencia Saintout, presented the award to Chávez on March 29 at open-air ceremony attended by about 3,000 people, including many sympathizers of the current Kirchner administration.

In his two-hour long acceptance speech Chavez lambasted the Argentine newspapers, radios and TV stations that questioned his merits for receiving the honor because of his repeated attacks on the Venezuelan press that (incidentally) have included closing down of more than 30 radio stations. He insisted that those media outlets were “frauds”, “cynical” and part of a “media dictatorship that must be identified and defeated.”

Ms Saintout, elected head of the journalism school a year ago, admitted that the award was “controversial” and “the cause for much debate” but said that her institution believes “there is freedom of the press in Venezuela”. “We know that this will deepen the debate over mass communication, which we conceive as a tool for the liberation of the people,” she told reporters.

The ceremony was broadcast live only by state owned channel 7 in Argentina and Telesur in Venezuela. Independent TV stations were not allowed to cover the event.

Many of the National University of La Plata’s authorities and professors have become spokesmen and advisors to national government officials. However, UNLP President, Fernando Tauber, distanced himself from the whole affair, saying the school of journalism authorities “may have their reasons” but emphasized that each university department should be free to make its own decisions.

The award came just as the conflict between the Argentine government and several independent media outlets took a turn for the worse. Since coming to power in 2003, the polarization of the media has been a key feature of the Kirchner’s political project. That same week, in the guise of a trade union conflict, about 40 people prevented the Sunday edition of the newspaper Clarín from reaching its 900,000 readers while the government did nothing. The “Clarín Group” owns radio, open air and cable TV stations. Another independent newspaper, La Nación, was also affected by the picket lines. Clarín has been singled out as the government’s archenemy ever since it parted ways with government policy over two years ago.

Clarín’s General Editor, Ricardo Kirschbaum, said in an interview last week that granting the award to Chavez was “surreal” and he expressed deep concern for the lack of objectivity that was being injected into journalism curricula at the UNLP and other institutions.

Critics of the government say that media controlled by the state does not even try to seem objective as an increasing number of radio stations, TV channels and newspapers are being bought by friends of the administration. Dissident journalists have had to seek work elsewhere.

Jorge Bernetti, lecturer at the UNLP Department of Journalism and director of its Masters program, drew a parallel between the media situation in Argentina and Venezuela. Defending his school’s decision, he wrote on its web page, “The huge majority of the written and electronic media in Venezuela respond to the concentration of power and to political opposition. Chávez has opened the door to a gradual process of democratization in communications which is fiercely resisted by those who believe that only the voice expressing economic interests should be allowed to speak and shape the image of life and power in Venezuela.”

Guest blogger, Cristina Bonasegna Kelly, is an educator and free-lance journalist in Buenos Aires, Argentina.


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