Temple University today cancelled a radio broadcast of "Democracy Now," which contained the first in a series of taped commentaries by death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, along with a live discussion about media access to prison inmates.
Listeners were told that the university was cancelling its contract with Pacifica Radio, which produced the program, and the broadcast would not be aired on university-owned radio. WRTI-Radio provides broadcasts to an extensive region of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and is the only station in Pennsylvania that subscribes to "Democracy Now."
With the cancellation, the public will not be able to hear the voice of Abu-Jamal, a former radio journalist convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. He was sentenced to death and is currently in a Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution.
"I am outraged that administrators at Temple University decided to silence an alternative voice offered to listeners of its radio station, WRTI-FM," said Steve Geimann, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. "The sudden abrupt, decision to preempt Pacifica's "Democracy Now" is clearly an act of censorship."
"In our American democracy, broadcasters and news organizations seek to offer numerous points of view. Our democracy is strong because we protect everyone's right of free speech, even those whose views we may find objectionable or discomforting."
The university's decision continues a disturbing pattern of keeping the public from hearing voices within the prison system. At least seven states including Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Rhode Island and Virginia have introduced policies restricting media access to inmates.
"If prisoners are not allowed to speak through the media, then we the public are not allowed to hear them," said Peter Sussman, president of SPJ's Northern California professional chapter and a participant in the "Democracy Now" Program. "We can't make effective criminal justice policies without hearing all of the parties to various criminal justice disputes."
The Society is an active proponent of prison access for the news media. SPJ filed a formal comment to the Bureau of Prisons about the Abu-Jamal case in 1995 and has testified at public hearings in Rhode Island and California.
"SPJ, like Pacifica Radio, isn't taking a stand on Abu-Jamal's guilt or innocence," said Geimann. "This issue today is all about allowing him--and other prisoners--the right to be heard and about the media's ability to pursue stories that will inform and enlighten the public and the bureaucracy."
In addition to inhibiting the free flow of information, the decision by Temple University sets an unfortunate example for the student journalists being educated at the university.
"This is a station designed to help train tomorrow's broadcast journalists," said Geimann. "Instead of allowing them to experience the realities involved in airing discussions on local issues, the administration has ended that process. Journalism will be the poorer for this extreme reaction."