Revolutionary Worker #897, March 9, 1997
Last week, 13 new commentaries from death row by political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal aired on Democracy Now!, a Pacifica radio network program carried on many stations across the country. But at WRTI-FM in North Philadelphia, Mumia's commentaries were pulled just before they were scheduled to air on February 24.
WRTI is the radio station at Temple University. WRTI's programming is carried on 12 affiliates in the Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware area with at least 250,000 listeners. The decision by the Temple University officials to censor Mumia affects all 12 affiliates. The university also canceled all Pacifica programming on WRTI, which consisted of the daily Democracy Now! program and a half-hour evening news report.
The new radio essays by Mumia cover such topics as the injustice of the death penalty in the U.S., the abolishment of the death penalty in South Africa, life on death row, the role of rap, police violence and corruption, the ravages of drugs, and comments on his own life. The commentaries are accompanied by public service announcements in support of Mumia by a number of prominent people--Alice Walker, Helen Prejean, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Martin Sheen, Joycelyn Elders, John Edgar Wideman, Assata Shakur and others. Temple University also canceled these public service announcements.
The new set of commentaries were taped last October 31 by Janice Leber and Nolen Edmonston of the Prison Radio Project. Just a few days later, on November 11, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections banned all cameras and audio/video equipment from the prisons. Journalists can still see prisoners, but only as "social" visitors. Under this rule, visits by journalists would have to displace family visits to prisoners. The prisoners at SCI Greene, the maximum security prison where Mumia is being held, call this "The Mumia Rule."
In a press release about the WRTI censorship, Patricia Scott, executive director of Pacifica National News, said: "Pacifica Radio believes that these actions violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The ban on radio journalists is a clear attempt to draw an iron curtain around Mumia and silence his poignant criticism of conditions inside prison walls."
This is a crucial juncture in Mumia's case. Mumia was framed for the murder of a Philadelphia cop in 1981 and sentenced to death. His appeal is now with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Pennsylvania Governor Ridge had declared publicly that he will immediately sign a new death warrant on Mumia if the state supreme court turns down his appeal.
Mumia's radio essays will introduce many new people to his penetrating and moving exposures of the system's injustices. They will help people understand that the state wants to execute him because of his political views and because he has become a symbol of resistance. And they will play an important role in the battle to prevent the legal lynching of Mumia and win a new trial for him. Noelle Hanrahan of the Prison Radio Project said in a press statement, "Pennsylvania would not be able to kill with impunity if Abu-Jamal's voice was heard."
It is not known yet what involvement there was by the police and high-level forces in the power structure in Temple University's banning of Mumia. In 1994, National Public Radio censored an earlier set of commentaries by Mumia after pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and Senator Bob Dole. The FOP has been actively organizing and calling for Mumia's execution.
George Ingram, vice president for public relations at Temple, used NPR's shameful example to justify the university's action: "I knew that National Public Radio had refused to air [Abu-Jamal's] commentaries in 1994, and they were pretty strong in their statement on that.... And what's good enough for NPR is good enough for me." Ingram said that NPR "had serious misgivings about the appropriateness of using as a commentator a convicted murderer seeking a new trial...." Julie Drizin, executive director of Democracy Now!, said, "What I think is sad...is that residents of the state of Pennsylvania are not going to hear the voice and views of somebody that the government of their state is prepared to execute in their name."
Ingram and the Temple administration have also apparently put a gag order on people working at WRTI. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "An employee at WRTI said no one else at the station was permitted to speak publicly about the issue."
On February 21, Pacifica Radio held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to formally announce the airing of Mumia's commentaries. It was attended by a number of groups and individuals who expressed their support for Pacifica.
Diann Rust-Tierney of the ACLU said, "We fully expect that Pacifica Radio will come under a firestorm of criticism for its decision to be true to its mission of giving a voice to society's most unpopular.... This is not a question of whether you are for or against the death penalty. It is a question of whether we have the courage to hear the whole truth about the practice."
David Mendoza, executive director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression said, "The American public has a right to hear the voices of prisoners in order to make informed decisions on important public policy issues such as sentencing legislation, prison conditions, and capital punishment. Abu-Jamal's status as a prisoner facing the death penalty should, if anything, give greater weight to the importance of allowing his voice to be heard. To deem the voice of an entire class of people--federal prisoners--`inappropriate' for broadcast can only be called censorship." Mendoza said the Pennsylvania restrictions on media access to prisoners "clearly is intended to silence Abu-Jamal, a death row inmate for 15 years who has been critical of the judicial and prison systems."
PEN, an organization of nearly 3,000 prominent writers, was also represented at the press conference. Their statement said, "We state our unequivocal belief that prisoners, whether convicted or not, have the First Amendment rights to free speech just as other citizens do....[Mumia's] work, and that of other inmates like him, has had enormous value, both in its own right as literature, and insofar as it has alerted audiences to the conditions prevailing in our country's jails. Were this means of communication broken, prisons would become, even more than they are already, an opaque and forgotten part of our society, a place where living conditions could deteriorate still further without provoking any public concern."
Steve Geiman, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, pointed out that at least six states have restricted media access to prisoners. He said, "We applaud Pacifica Radio for its decision to broadcast the views of Mumia Abu-Jamal to its audience. It's one small step toward keeping the press free."
The censorship of Mumia's commentaries by WRTI is the latest in a series of new steps by the authorities to persecute Mumia and try to silence his voice. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected one of Mumia's legal briefs concerning important testimony by a key witness, Veronica Jones; prison authorities ordered Mumia to cut his hair, which he wears in dreadlocks for religious reasons; one of Mumia's lawyers was denied entrance to SCI Greene; Mumia received a piece of confidential mail from his lead attorney that had a corner torn open, with "cop killer" written across the front; and a member of the Bruderhof religious community who has visited Mumia frequently was kicked out of SCI Greene and banned from the entire state prison system.
Students at the WRTI radio station have reportedly protested the decision to censor Mumia, and the station's phone lines have been jammed with protest calls. After Democracy Now! broadcast Temple University vice president Ingram's office number, he received 150 calls opposing the censorship. International Concerned Family & Friends, the Philadelphia chapter of the ACLU, Mumia's attorneys, Academics for Mumia Abu-Jamal and others are holding a rally and press conference on March 3 in front of Temple President Peter Liacouras' office. The International Concerned Family & Friends are calling for letters of protest to be sent to Peter J. Liacouras, President, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122, 215-204-7405.
In response to the WRTI censorship, Refuse & Resist! issued an "urgent call to act in defense of Mumia" which said in part: "While the crucial final decision on Mumia's case by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is being considered, we cannot rest. We must respond to every attack on Mumia and his supporters, by exposing these attacks, mobilizing people's outrage and serving notice on the other side that every such attack is going to backfire on them."