Argentina gives Hugo Chavez press freedom award

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Cristina Fernandez of Argentina in Buenos Aires Mr Chavez and Ms Fernandez are close political allies

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been given a press freedom award during a visit to Argentina.

The University of La Plata said it was honouring him for his efforts to break "media monopolies" in Latin America and support "popular communication".

The award has angered critics who accuse Mr Chavez of stifling opposition media in Venezuela.

Earlier Mr Chavez signed a series of commercial accords with his Argentine counterpart, Cristina Fernandez.

The university said it was giving Mr Chavez the Rodolfo Walsh award for "his commitment to defending the liberty of the people, consolidating Latin American unity, and defending human rights, truth and democratic values".

'Media dictatorship'

Mr Chavez welcomed the honour.

He told a crowd of students that Venezuela was promoting "a new dynamic of communication and information free from the media dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the empire" - the term he uses to refer to the US.

Since becoming president in 1999 Mr Chavez has set up the Telesur network, which offers a state-funded alternative to private television stations across Latin America.

He has also funded a major expansion of state-funded media in Venezuela that support his left-wing politics.

And he has been involved in a long-running battle with private media companies in Venezuela, who he has accused of supporting efforts to overthrow him.

New regulations have forced the closure of many pro-opposition radio and cable television stations, although independent newspapers and websites still operate.

Opposition groups and some media organisations in Argentina and Venezuela have criticised the decision to give Mr Chavez the Rodolfo Walsh prize, which is named after and Argentine journalist who disappeared during military rule in the 1970s.

The head of the the Argentine parliament's commission for freedom of Expression commission, Silvana Giudici, said giving the prize to Mr Chavez was "inconceivable" and "a contradiction".

Argentina dispute

The award to the Venezuelan leader coincides with a row over press freedom in Argentina.

Two of Argentina's biggest newspapers, Clarin and La Nacion, have accused President Fernandez of supporting trade union activists who blocked the distribution of the newspaper on Sunday.

Clarin published a blank front page on Monday in protest.

Ms Fernandez's government has denied any involvement in the dispute, calling it a matter of industrial relations.

But she has been involved in a series of disputes with Clarin and other private media groups, and is promoting a new communications law which would reduce their dominance.

Mr Chavez and Mr Fernandez signed a series of major commercial accords under which Venezuela will import cars, food and agricultural machinery from Argentina in return for continued oil supplies.

Both leaders also condemned Nato-led military action in Libya.

After Argentina, Mr Chavez is to visit Uruguay, Bolivia and Colombia.

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