KCRW Show Speaks Out for 'Prisoners of Conscience'


From its studio in the cafeteria basement at Santa Monica College, KCRW tries to make foreign leaders squirm in their seats of power.

Once a month, the National Public Radio affiliate broadcasts a report of international human rights abuses in a half-hour show, "Amnesty International Reports."

March marks the fifth anniversary of "Reports," the brainchild of station manager Ruth Hirschman, a veteran member of Amnesty International, the London-based human-rights organization.

On each show, Hirschman discusses three countries in the news with Len Rose-Avila, the West Coast director of Amnesty. At the end of the program, the pair appeal to listeners to write letters in behalf of a "prisoner of conscience," a person detained without fair trial or in disregard to human rights.

Hirschman and Rose-Avila invite listeners to call the station to receive instructions on writing the letters. And four times a day, KCRW announcers remind listeners to do the same.

"The show is a way of achieving a very defined goal--getting somebody free," Hirschman said.

Thirty public radio stations across the United States air "Amnesty International Reports." In addition, KCRW sends a cassette recording of the program to a station in Costa Rica that beams the program worldwide via shortwave radio.

"Reports" is a twist on the traditional Amnesty strategy of local chapters adopting a political prisoner and working in that person's behalf until he or she is freed.

"What this show does is give access to a lot of people because it's on the airwaves," Rose-Avila said. "In L.A. that's so important because we spend a lot of time driving or long hours working with the radio on."

The station receives about 500 calls a month requesting information on a prisoner detained in one of the countries discussed in that month's program.

Hirschman said the response reflects the special nature of the audience. "The people who listen to public radio are the antithesis of couch potatoes," she said. "It seemed to me there was a need to engage in something positive for people who are more than passive listeners."

KCRW mails callers a one-page biography of a prisoner and a history of the person's arrest. The "one-sheet" also includes the address of the head of state of the country and suggests that letters urge for the prisoner's immediate and unconditional release.

"Reports" does not focus on abuses in the United States because, as a matter of policy, Amnesty International aims its campaigns at foreign nations. Only Amnesty groups outside the United States direct their efforts to abuses in this country.

This month's prisoner of conscience is Sudanese journalist Mohamed Abdulsid, who has reportedly been detained incommunicado since late January.

Amnesty International believes that Abdulsid was arrested because he wrote an article that quoted the overthrown the prime minister, Sadek Mahdi. The leader of the outlawed Umma party, Mahdi opposes Sudan's military government, which came to power in a 1989 coup.

Rose-Avila can only guess about the influence the letters have on foreign leaders, but he estimates that they have contributed to the release of more than 50 political prisoners.

"While we count releases, the most important thing is by focusing international attention on individual prisoners, you affect the lives of many, many people in that prison and in that country."

When a government receives hundreds of letters in behalf of one prisoner, it often leads to improved conditions not only for that person, but also for his or her fellow citizens, Rose-Avila said.

In the late 1980s, the reports often "touched a nerve" of popular concern for prisoners in South Africa, Cuba, Czechoslovakia and El Salvador, Hirschman said. After those programs, the station would typically field calls from as many as 1,000 listeners a month.

Many released prisoners say their freedom was earned by the letter-writing campaigns, which Amnesty has termed "Urgent Actions," Hirschman said.

"When you speak with people released from prison and they credit Amnesty's Urgent Action program for their release, you find out just what it means to them that you wrote."

The show transcends many traditional differences between liberals and conservatives, Hirschman said.

"It wasn't all roses in the beginning," she said. "Liberals and conservatives were often angered by Amnesty's positions on certain countries. Each side had its sacred cows, but the issue of human rights cuts a wide path through both."

The cultural diversity of Los Angeles is reflected in the calls the station receives in response to the show, Rose-Avila said.

"Almost every time we do a show, somebody from one of the countries who's living locally calls or comes in to see me to talk about what we've said. Even when people disagree with you it's exciting, because I've run into human rights activists who want to do more to help."

The program is designed to let listeners know that they can make a difference with the simple act of writing a letter, Rose-Avila explained.

"What we always want to do in the show is tell people there is hope, there is something you can do," he said. "You can change the world."

"Amnesty International Reports airs on KCRW, at 89.9 FM, the last Monday of each month at 12:25 p.m. Fact sheets can be obtained by calling the station at (310) 450-5183.

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