Threats to Indigenous press freedom as a tribe rolls back protections

Current and former Mvskoke Media staff members in 2016 in New Orleans, where they received the NAJA Elias Boudinot Free Press Award. Photo by Patty Talahongva.

At one time, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma was at the forefront of press freedom in Indian Country. In 2015, the National Council passed legislation to protect Mvskoke Media—a newspaper, radio, and broadcast outlet funded by the tribe—from financial and political influence. Within weeks of the bill being passed, Mvskoke Media reporters were producing investigative stories; since then, they have covered everything from massive deficits in the nation’s department of health budget to mismanagement of the tribe’s housing program.

But with a recent, chilling attack on press freedom, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has made clear that independent journalism has no home in the fourth largest tribe in the US. Recently, the national council introduced and passed legislation to repeal the free press act, which was signed into law by Muscogee (Creek) Principal Chief James Floyd within 24 hours. The bill dissolves the outlet’s editorial board which has served as an intermediary between government officials and reporters, places the Department of Commerce in charge of approving content, and puts Mvskoke reporters under the nation’s employee policies, which include the right to monitor employees’ computer systems, chat groups, and emails.

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The legislation’s passage prompted Mvskoke Media’s manager, Sterling Cosper, to resign. Chief Floyd, who was not available for comment on the law, said in a written public statement, “I have never interfered or influenced the reporting of Mvskoke Media. I pledge to continue to support the principles of free press, while also safeguarding our sovereignty and our primary goals of preserving our culture, honoring our elders, and supporting our youth.”

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The elimination of press protections for Mvskoke Media is an alarming attack on journalists covering the day-to-day activities of their tribal government, and a stunning back-pedal for a nation once viewed as a leader in free expression. “It makes me dizzy to hear leadership say that and take actions that are contrary to that pledge,” says Cosper, referring to Chief Floyd’s comments. “I feel terrible for my colleagues and real bad for the citizens too.” Requests for comment by Mvskoke Media reporters were referred to the nation’s public relations manager, who said such requests “can’t be approved at this time.”

Of 573 tribal nations, it’s estimated that nearly three-quarters explicitly or implicitly support free press in their constitutions, articles of incorporation, or other organic documents. But that support comes with a hitch: Creating good journalism is expensive, and in many Indigenous communities the only entity that can, or will, put up money for a newspaper is the tribal government. Non-Indigenous journalists don’t usually report on tribal affairs; non-Indigenous newsrooms don’t set up initiatives to support rural, tribal outlets; and philanthropic organizations rarely support Indigenous media makers. Tribal governments’ support for Indigenous journalism has developed a rich media landscape consisting of more than 200 Indigenous news outlets, which are often the only source for accurate information on tribal affairs.

In a survey conducted this year by the Native American Journalists Association, Indigenous journalists identified a lack of financial resources and a lack of editorial control as the two greatest threats to tribal media.

To be clear, that means tribal governments own and operate some of the only media outlets that reach Indigenous audiences. In order to address government oversight, a handful of nations—The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, The Cherokee Nation, The Navajo Nation, and the Osage Nation—have passed laws to build firewalls between reporters and officials. But that legislative support is the exception, not the rule.

In a survey conducted this year by the Native American Journalists Association, Indigenous journalists identified a lack of financial resources and a lack of editorial control as the two greatest threats to tribal media. (I serve as the president of NAJA.) Tribal journalists said that nations’ economies impacted outlets’ abilities to be financially independent, and disclosed that government officials and political interests often determined media content. Respondents also rated editorial and journalistic freedom at tribal outlets as extremely low. In other words, while tribally-run media outlets sometimes run like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, more often they fall on the Russia Today end of the spectrum.

Indigenous journalism has a rich history in the Americas. The Cherokee Phoenix was first published in English and ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ, the Cherokee language, in 1828. (By comparison, The New York Times was founded in 1851.) The tradition extends beyond newspapers. The Sett’an yearly calendar, named after its creator, is one of many pictograph calendars that document and preserve events important to my tribe, the Kiowa. Drafted by one of antiquity’s great historians, the Sett’an calendar is an important journalistic document; it laid groundwork for future Kiowa storytellers and reporters. Oral histories record events and ceremonies for future generations. Totem poles carry information like data banks. These story forms reflect the interests, values, and priorities of their communities. They are the journalistic and historical traditions that form the foundation of Indigenous self-determination and tribal sovereignty. They are the same traditions inherited by Mvskoke Media, and imperiled by the Muscogee (Creek) National Council’s vote.

Tribal governments must adopt stronger free press protections, but the burden cannot be on Indigenous communities alone. For more than 500 years, Indigenous people have been seen almost exclusively as sources of labor, profit, and knowledge. In journalism, this often plays out in the production of stories about Indigenous people, by non-Indigenous people, for non-Indigenous people—an extraction of information that very rarely offers any benefit to the communities it comes from. Support for Indigenous reporters and outlets from journalism organizations—in the form of hiring, training, funding, or partnering—is one step toward righting that historical relationship.

In Indian Country, journalism is the forerunner of justice, self-determination, and tribal sovereignty. Indigenous journalists strive to ensure the free exchange of information that is culturally accurate, fair, and thorough. Most importantly, Indigenous reporters descend from a tradition in which information is used to enlighten, protect, and serve communities. As governments work to stamp out independent reporting, a free press in Indian Country is needed more than ever. Responsible nations recognize the value, and history, that Indigenous journalists represent.

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Tristan Ahtone is president of the Native American Journalists Association and associate editor for tribal affairs at High Country News.