By Uwe Siemon-Netto
When a renowned university of a major nation honors a despot for restricting his people’s access to information the world should be alarmed, especially the United States. Earlier this week, the journalism school of Argentina’s National University in La Plata awarded Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez its coveted Rodolfo Walsh Prize thus “making the goat the gardener,” as Germany’s venerable Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper (FAZ) headlined its report about this astonishing event, which was barely mentioned in the mainstream U.S. media.
The paper reminded its readers that during his reign Chávez has closed down 38 radio stations, four of those during the last week. Moreover, he has a record of bringing criminal charges against reporters criticizing him, and of expelling foreign personalities from Venezuela if they make negative remarks about his policies in public.
Normally the Rodolfo Walsh Prize is given to personalities who have advanced freedom of the press in in their careers as journalists or in their academic pursuits. As this did not apply to Chávez or his ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, a previous Walsh laureate, what might have qualified them for this award? Well, explained journalism Dean Florencia Saintout, their contribution to “popular communication.” She said, “We have created a new category of the Rodolfo Walsh Prize for Latin American leaders committed to giving a voice to people who are the least heard from.”
In his acceptance speech Chávez presented himself as a champion of the freedom of opinion, praising revolutionary leaders Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara, the destroyers of this very freedom in Cuba. He also berated “hypocrites and cynics” in the “bourgeois press” of creating a “media dictatorship that must be vanquished” because it was turning ”truth into lies.”
Alas, such is the disdain for history in Western newsrooms and editorial departments that none of these terms seems to have triggered apprehension. The Nazis and the Bolsheviks had a habit of agitating against the “bourgeois press” and evoking “the people;” Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s ingeniously evil propaganda minister, called the Nazis’ newspaper “Völkischer Beobachter” (The People’s Observer), and truth became the slogan of Soviet propaganda, to wit the name of the Soviet Communist party’s central organ. It was called “Pravda,” truth.
There is a Greek word for turning things on their heads. It is “diaballein” and has given the devil his name. When in Argentina, now governed by Chavez’ ally Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, this enemy of freedom and of the truth and therefore ultimately the people is honored in the name of freedom and the truth, the American media must not sleep.
Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.