By: Editorial Staff
NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF Black Journalists leaders won’t take a stand on the guilt or innocence of former radio reporter and convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.
But the group has come out in support of the free-speech rights of the one-time NABJ Philadelphia chapter president, scheduled for lethal injection Aug. 17 in Pennsylvania.
Abu-Jamal was convicted in the 1981 shooting death of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner during a street confrontation. He maintains he is innocent.
Allegations that Abu-Jamal was set up, questions about whether he received a fair trial and complaints about his treatment in prison have made him a cause c?l?bre in recent weeks.
Newspaper columnists have written about his case. Rallies in his behalf have been held in Philadelphia and New York City. And supporters have called on NABJ ? which, ironically, will hold its national convention in Philadelphia the week Abu-Jamal is to be put to death ? to intercede. But the association balked.
NABJ president and Washington Post columnist Dorothy Butler Gilliam issued a statement June 27, saying NABJ “does not see this unfortunate circumstance as an issue of journalism upon which it feels compelled to take a stand at this time.”
Then, on July 12, NABJ released another statement, this one deploring the alleged violation of Abu-Jamal’s First Amendment rights.
The association noted that attorneys for Abu-Jamal had filed a court petition accusing prison officials of denying the former journalist contact with the news media, confiscating and photocopying his mail and preventing his access to publications deemed “leftist.”
NABJ expressed “outrage” at “these clearly punitive measures.”
It said, “There may be disagreement about Abu-Jamal’s opinions, his guilt or innocence, but it is our responsibility as civil Americans to unite and defend his constitutional right to speak his mind and be interviewed.”
Abu-Jamal’s lawyers contend that prosecutors in the case suppressed witness testimony and successfully worked to keep blacks off the jury. Supporters believe Abu-Jamal was framed because of his black activism.
Village Voice media writer James Ledbetter ripped NABJ in one of his columns, quoting an NABJ board member as saying that while the board voted to not contest Abu-Jamal’s conviction, it never considered calling for a stay of execution or a new trial.
This is “a stirring message” to journalists of every stripe, Ledbetter wrote, adding, “Who cares if the bullet that killed the police officer was of a different caliber than Abu-Jamal’s gun? So what if an NABJ luminary is snuffed out without a fair trial? The NABJ has more important business to attend to.”