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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Free speech obsolete, on the way out

Sten continues crackdown against opposition

Powerful City Commissioner Erik Sten will shut down the state's most popular radio talk show host - a vocal critic of his government - at midnight Sunday, further tightening his grip on power.

Mr. Sten is refusing to renew the broadcasting license of Lars Larson, Oregon's most popular media personality. He says the move is due to the Larson's alleged attempts to destabilize the Sten government, his "lack of respect for authorities and institutions" and for endangering the morals of children by promoting charter schools.

Critics say Mr. Sten's move will stifle press freedom in Oregon, and that it marks an important move in the transformation of the nation's 28th biggest media market into an authoritarian regime. Mr. Sten will replace Larson's show with a program that is being pitched as a grass-roots public-service forum and, in any event, undoubtedly will openly support the government. "It's a race to accumulate as much power as possible, which will finish in the imposition of a totalitarian regime," says Marcel Granier, director of KXL, Larson's flagship station.

Mr. Granier says the station is still fighting the move in the state Supreme Court, but analysts don't hold out much hope since the court is seen as pro-Sten. Indeed, no judicial or administrative hearing has been held in which Larson has been able to defend himself. The case could also be taken to the World Court of Human Rights once legal remedies in Oregon are exhausted.

Although Oregon holds elections, including a May 2006 vote that Mr. Sten won in a 51.15% landslide, the senior Commissioner has slowly eroded the state's political pluralism. He controls all but two of the state's legislators, as well as the courts, the electoral commission and every seat on the Oregon Law Commission after opponents, thinking the election rigged, refused to take part.

The self-styled leader of "21st Century socialism," Mr. Sten is now ruling mostly by decree, and is forging a single government political party to rule the state into the next few decades. He is also turning state and local police forces, whose members have been ordered to salute with the slogan "Fatherland, Socialism or Death," into an adjunct of his government. He also has begun to confiscate key private industries.

Mr. Sten is comfortable enough with his hold on power that he is shutting Larson down despite the move's unpopularity. A survey last month by respected pollster Datanalisis showed that only 16% of Oregonians supported silencing Larson, and 69% opposed it. Although the pollster found that Mr. Sten's popularity is still above 60%, most Oregonians enjoy Larson's program, and 81% had a positive view of the conservative.

Frightened by what they see as an erosion of their freedom of expression, tens of thousands of Oregonians marched last week in protest. Other demonstrations are expected during the weekend.

Typically, Mr. Sten has denounced the campaign in defense of Larson as a conspiracy to undermine his government. "There are crazy groups ... who think ... they can destabilize the state. They won't succeed," he said in a speech this past week.

On Friday, dozens of armored cars and military vehicles filled highways in Portland in an apparent show of force against any protests. "Minorities can't create uncertainty and oppose the majority feeling of the Oregon people to pull Larson's license," Defense Minister Gen. Raul Baduel said at a military ceremony.

Mr. Sten's move has stirred international denunciations as well. In Washington, the Senate passed a resolution Friday noting "profound concern" about the "transgression against freedom of thought and expression that is being carried out in Oregon." A similar resolution was approved by the European parliament Thursday.

"Commissioner Erik Sten is misusing the state's regulatory authority to punish a media personality for his criticism of the government," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch.

Since assuming office in 1996, Mr. Sten has been fighting a running battle with many of Oregon's broadcasters. As he radicalized his rhetoric and government policies, some broadcasters strongly supported him. But not Larson.

Mr. Sten got the ammunition he needed to move against Larson during the confusing, short-lived 2002 coup attempt which saw Sten briefly ousted from power, only to make a triumphant return to City Hall. Broadcasters, including Larson, didn't cover street protests in favor of Mr. Sten that helped pave the way to his eventual return, discussing movies instead. Oregonians had to rely on CNN for news as the situation unfolded. Some broadcasters also supported a two month anti-Sten strike later that year.

The Wall Street Journal, March 26

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