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Inmate commentary raises issues of censorship
Should the voice of a Pennsylvania Death Row inmate be broadcast over Pacifica Radio?
Readings from convicted killer Mumia Abu-Jamal were aired by Pacifica beginning the week of Feb. 24 on its show Democracy Now!
While the first day s broadcast was in progress, the show s host Amy Goodman learned that Temple University had cancelled its contract with Pacifica.
Goodman announced the decision during the show and provided listeners with a contact at Temple to voice a protest. The Temple station, Philadelphia's WRTI, had provided programming for 12 outlets in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
SPJ-ers Peter Sussman and I were guests on the show. Goodman asked me to respond to Temple's decision.
I called it censorship.
Sussman and I were there to talk about a broader issue, the increasing trend to deny journalists access to those incarcerated in prisons across the country. SPJ has taken a lead on this issue after California became the first state to restrict access.
Not only do inmates lack a voice these days, so do journalists. Inmates can't talk and journalists can't get inside to report what they're saying. I don't see these as separate issues.
Was Temple's decision to cancel Pacifica an act of censorship?
Jane Kirtley, an attorney and executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said it isn't.
I limit it to governmental actions. I think journalists do have some obligation to sort this out, define the term. I use it strictly for government censorship. By using the term, one creates the notion that the media has the ability to censor or has an obligation to publish.
Kirtley was also critical of Pacifica's decision to have a news conference a few days prior to running Abu-Jamal's commentaries.
They said, close us down if you dare ...
The 13 commentaries, recorded by the Prison Radio Project, cover a variety of topics – from Mad Cow disease to reflections on Abu-Jamal's parents.
Kirtley says what happened to Pacifica does not represent a major press freedom case. However, she said Pacifica may have a claim against Temple, a state-funded university, for viewpoint-based discrimination.
Pacifica officials said a lawsuit isn't likely.
Ben Bagdikian, a well-known author on the media and prison issues, was a guest on Democracy Now! the day after Temple cancelled.
I regard it as a censorship because it was directed at keeping a certain point of view from being broadcast," he said.
Bagdikian chides anyone for thinking that Pacifica does not, or should not, have a point of view. Of course they have an agenda to counter balance conservative views, he said.
Does that agenda mean Temple's decision is any less troubling?
Not according to Bagdikian.
Temple is a state institution that depends on the legislature and the governor for funding. The Fraternal Order of Police and others have lobbied to make sure Abu-Jamal's voice isn't heard, including putting pressure on the publisher of the inmate's book Live from Death Row.
Temple officials did not return calls from SPJ officials, but stated in a memo to Pacifica that, The cancellation of Pacifica Network News has been under consideration for some time. Quite frankly, the decision was accelerated by news that `Democracy Now! would air the Mumia Abu-Jamal radio commentaries that National Public Radio rejected in 1994.
Temple's statement refers to NPR's decision not to broadcast the inmate's commentaries following political pressure and protests from police unions and departments.
George Ingram, the school's vice president of public relations, did give an interview to Ellen O'Brien of The Philadelphia Inquirer. He said: ... what's good enough for NPR is good enough for me.
The story goes on to report that Democracy Now! broadcast Ingram s name and telephone number in other cities. Ingram said he received about 150 calls, most of them objecting to his decision.
Maureen Faulkner, widow of the police officer Abu-Jamal was found guilty of murdering, called to thank Ingram for the show's cancellation, according to The Inquirer.
Few media groups have publicly criticized Temple's decision.
National SPJ and PEN American Center, an association of writers that defends freedom of expression, denounced the university's call. The
Keystone SPJ Professional chapter in Pennsylvania also wrote to Temple officials.
Both organizations have stressed they take no position in Abu-Jamal's case.
SPJ President Steve Geimann has also written to Temple University President Peter Liacouras and raises other issues.
Temple's decision is unfortunate for another reason: This is a station to help train tomorrow's broadcast journalists. Instead of allowing them to experience the realities involved in airing discussions on local issues, the administration has short-circuited that process. Journalism will be the poorer for this extreme action.
Geimann also notes that Temple had every legal right to replace programming, but added the manner and reason for making this change smack of censorship, pure and simple.
On Nov. 11, Pennsylvania prison officials clamped down on journalists access to inmates by issuing revised administrative policy. One reason they decided to do so, according to a spokesman, was because of media attention focused on Abu-Jamal.
There were no public hearings on that policy change.