Friday, September 03, 2010

Mumia Abu-Jamal : “I am an outlaw journalist”

Sept. 3, 2010 Reporters Without Borders

On August 29th, 2010, Reporters Without Borders
Washington DC representative, Clothilde Le Coz,
visited Mumia Abu-Jamal, prisoner on death row
for nearly three decades. Ms. Le Coz was
accompanied by Abu-Jamal’s lead attorney, Robert
R. Bryan, and his legal assistant, Nicole Bryan.
The meeting took place in room 17 of the State
Correctional Institution (SCI) in Waynesburg,
Greene county, Pennsylvania.

Reporters Without Borders: As a journalist who
continues to work in prison, what are your latest
reports focused on? Mumia Abu-Jamal: The prison
population in the United States is the highest in
the world. Over the past year, for the first time
in 38 years, the prison population declined.

Some states, like California or Michigan, are
taking fewer prisoners because of overcrowding.
State budgets are restrained and some prisoners
are released because of the economic situation.

Prisons in America are vast and the number of
prisoners is immense. It’s impressive to see how
much money is spent by the US government and how
invisible we are. No one knows. Most people don’t
care. Some journalists report when there is a
drama in prison and think they know about it. But
this is not real : it is sensationalist. You can
find some good writings. But they are
unrealistic. My reporting is what I have seen
with my eyes and what people told me. It is real.
My reporting has to do with my reality. They
mostly have been focusing on death row and
prison. I wish it were not so. There is a spate
of suicides on death row in the last year and a
half. But this is invisible. I broke stories
about suicide because it happened on my block.

I need to write. There are millions of stories
and some wonderful people here. Among these
stories, the ones I chose to write are important,
moving, fragile. I decide to write them but part
of the calculation is to know whether it’s
helpful or not. I have to think about that. As a
reporter, you have a responsability when you
publish those kind of stories. Hopefully, it will
change their lives for the better.

Do you think the fact you were a reporter
affected your case ?

Being the "Voice of the Voiceless" played a
significant role. And this expression actually
comes from the title of a Philadephia Inquirer
headline after I was arrested in 1981. As a
teenager, I was a radical journalist working on
the staff of the Black Panthers national
newspaper. The FBI was actually monitoring my
writings since I was 14. My first job was being a
reporter. Because of my writings, I am far better
known that any inmate in America. If it were not
the case, I think there would have been less
pressure for the Court to create a special law to
affect my conviction. Most of the men and women
on death row are not well known. Because I
continue to write, this is an element that would
have affected the thinking of the judges and made
them change the ruling for not giving me a new
trial. I think they were thinking “You’re a big
mouth, you won’t get a new trial”. You expect a
little more from a federal Court. Because of my
case, a dozen of other cases can be affected.

What do you think of the media coverage of your case ?

Once, I read that I was no longer on death row. I
was sitting here when I read it. I haven’t stopped
sitting here for one second.

Because I was coming from the craft, a lot of
reporters did not want to cover my case because
they feared they would be attached. They had to
face criticisms for being partial and sometimes
they were told by their editors they could not
cover it. Since the beginning of the case, people
who could cover me best were not allowed to. Most
of reporters I worked with are no longer working.
They retired and nobody took the work over.

But the press should have a role to play here.
Millions of people saw what was done in Abu
Ghraib. Its leader, smiling on the pictures that
have been published, worked here before going to
Abu Ghraib. In death row, you have people without
a high school degree who can decide whether
someone lives or dies. For whatever reason, they
have the power to make you not eat if they don’t
want to. And none of that power is checked by
anyone. There are informal rules. These people
can make someone’s life a living hell on a wink.
When I chose which stories I want to write about,
I am never short on material. From a writing
perspective, this field is rich.

No matter what my detractors are saying about me,
I am a reporter. This country would be a whole
lot worse without journalists. But to many of
them, I am an outlaw reporter. Prior to prison,
in my work for various radio stations, I met
people from all around the world and despite my
conflicts with some editors, I had the greatest job.

The support you receive in Europe compared to the
support you receive here in the United States, is
very different. How do you explain the difference
and do you still believe international
mobilization will be helpful ?

Of course it will. The European mobilization
might be pressuring the US regarding the death
penalty. Foreign countries, like European ones,
went through a specific history of repression.
There was an in-their-bones-knowledge of what it
is to be in prison. They know about prison, death
row and concentration camps. In the US, very few
people had that experience. That speaks to how
cultures look at things in the world. In Europe,
the very ideal of death penalty is an anathema.

9/11 changed a lot of things in the US. People
challenging or opposing the government would not
be supported anymore. The press also changed.
Things that were “allowable” became unacceptable
after 9/11. I think 9/11 changed the way people
thought and it changed the tolerance of the
media. For example, even though 9/11 happened in
Manhattan and Washington DC, the jail was closed
for an entire day, here in Pennsylvania, and we
were locked down.

To motivate more people around your cause, it
might be helpful to get an up to date picture of
you, today, on death row. Does the fact that we
don’t have any updated picture of you affect your
situation and the ability of more people to
mobilize around your cause ?

Having a public image is partly helpful. The
essence of an image is propaganda. Pictures are
therefore not that important. The human image is
the true one. There, I try to do my best. In
1986, prison authorities took recorders from
reporters and you were only allowed a pen and a
paper. Now that there is only the meaning of one
article left, one can make monsters and models
from his article.

If the Supreme Court agrees on a new trial, only
your sentence will be reviewed. Not your
conviction. How do you feel about staying in
prison for life, if you are not executed ?

In Pennsylvania, life sentence is a slow death
row. And under the state law, there are 3 degrees
of murders. The first degree is punished by life
sentence or death. The second and the third ones
are punished by life sentence. People do not get
out. The highest juvenile rate of life sentences
is here in Pennsylvania. But here is my point, in
Philadelphia, there were two other cases around
my time were people killed a cop. The first one
got aquittal. The second once, caught on a
surveillance camera, did not get a death sentence.

How do you manage to “escape” death row ?

I have written on History, one of my passions. I
would love to write about other things. My latest
works are about war, but I also write about
culture and music. I have an internal beat that I
try to keep through poetry and drums. Very few
things have matched the pleasure that I get from
learning music. It’s like learning another
language. And to write, that’s a challenge ! A
music teacher comes every week and teaches me. A
whole new world is opening to me and I get a
better grasp of it now. Music is one of the best
thing mankind has done. The best of our lives.

For further information and to offer support for
Mumia Abu-Jamal, contact: Law Offices of Robert
R. Bryan 2088 Union Street, Suite 4, San
Francisco, CA 94123-4117,37070.html
Petition also available from our website

Reporters Without Borders defends imprisoned
journalists and press freedom throughout the
world. It has nine national sections (Austria,
Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain,
Sweden and Switzerland). It has representatives
in Bangkok, New York, Tokyo and Washington. And
it has more than 120 correspondents worldwide.

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