“I am an outlaw journalist”
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 choose 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 responsibility 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 Panther 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 in the pictures that have been published, worked here before going to Abu Ghraib. On 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 choose 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 acquittal. The second one, 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 94123-4117http://www.MumiaLegalDefense.org
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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.