Will Latin America tolerate a free press?

Last month, one of Latin America's top journalism prizes went to a man whose only known investigative coup was a recent finding that capitalism may have destroyed life on Mars. Yes, none other than Hugo Chavez, president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, waltzed off with the Rodolfo Walsh Prize, given by Argentina's National University de la Plata and named after one of the 20th century's genuine martyrs to the profession. It was hard not to suppose that the honor was promoted by Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who has lately chosen to play Tonto to Chavez's neo-socialist Lone Ranger.

The remains of Walsh, a heroic leftist writer and activist reportedly gunned down by the Argentine dictatorship 35 years ago, have never been found. But one assumes that wherever they are entombed, they were spinning at the idea that the man many consider today's most serious enemy of a free press in all of Latin America won a prize commemorating that very institution.

The New York Times reported in 2009: "In Venezuela, Mr. Chavez and his supporters have been stepping up efforts to restrict news media coverage." After Chavez denounced private radio's "tyranny," Venezuela revoked the licenses of 34 of the country's radio stations. And laws passed Dec. 20 extend control to the Internet, which now, like the broadcast media, may not transmit messages that "foment anxiety in the public or disturb public order … promote disobedience of the current legal order" or "refuse to recognize the legitimately constituted authority." In August, dozens of armed Chavez militants raided the offices of the TV network Globovision, which had been critical of Chavez. Its owner, Guillermo Zuloaga, later fled the country.

But there are reasons why Fernandez might align herself with Chavez on the issue of a free press. For one thing, she's waging her own war against much of her local media, including two of South America's largest newspapers: Clarin and La Nacion. Both have been dogging her administration with well-documented stories of corruption, some involving the enormous increase of wealth she and her late husband, Nestor Kirchner, a former Argentine president, acquired after his election in 2003, others on the dubious transactions of the mighty national unions that support her Peronist coalition. Another reason is that it's widely surmised that Chavez's financial support (minus the $800,000 an alert officer nabbed arriving at a Buenos Aires airport) aided her presidential victory in 2007.

But it's in their joint hostility to the very idea of an opposition media that the two seem most closely conjoined. Chavez created Telesur, a media entity whose broadcasts and Web presence are supposed to reflect the opinions and concerns of Latin America's underprivileged. But if you wonder who calls the shots, just look at the fawning coverage of Chavez's daily moves on its website. The Associated Press quoted La Plata journalism professor Claudio Gomez as saying that Chavez won 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."

Ahem.

If you were Fernandez, facing an October election at the vanguard of the unruly assortment of populist and labor movements that make up her Justicialist Party (along with reportedly rising corruption and a 24% annual inflation rate), you might envy Chavez's mighty Telesur megaphone, and his ability to shut down opposition voices.

Fortunately, this envy doesn't seem to be widely shared among other Latin American leaders. For the most part, only Chavez, Fernandez, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and occasionally Bolivia's Evo Morales regard the "bourgeois imperialist" news media the same way.

Other leaders are coming to terms with the functional worth of an untrammeled press in a democracy, particularly those who suffered the most during the right-wing, U.S.-sanctioned dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s: Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, for instance, who was tortured by the Pinochet junta. Or Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, imprisoned for more than 14 years. Both are leftists who face national newspapers of record that are conservative and critical. Onetime militarists' torture victim Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, whose supporters accused the media of acting like an opposition party during her recent election, has since declared herself a supporter of the free press. "I don't deny that sometimes [the media] spread things that left me sad," she said. "But we are lovers of freedom." So Brazil's press stays free.

So, for the most part, does Argentina's. But the CGT, the mighty union that embodies Peronism, has been blocking deliveries of the newspapers Fernandez calls a "monopoly," despite the fact that they are owned by separate entities and have strongly differing politics. More alarmingly, much of the traditional Argentine left, who respect her and her late husband for facing down the International Monetary Fund and for their courage in bringing to trial the dictators who killed 30,000 of their countrymen, seem to buy into the idea that a constitutional republic of 40 million people with a huge court system and vast military and police forces is at the mercy of those bourgeois monopolists' front pages.

"A government has the right to defend itself against a hostile press," an Argentine intellectual friend of mine wrote me recently. I said he sounded like Richard Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew. I could have less charitably told him he was also speaking like the 1976-1983 dictatorship that tried to destroy Argentine democracy forever.

Marc Haefele, a commentator on KPCC-FM, has reported on Argentina for the Boston Review, the Jewish Journal and the Argentine magazine Nomada.

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