In 1834, Georgia militia marched into Cherokee Nation’s capital, seized the tribal newspaper, smashed the printing press and threw type pieces into the river. The Cherokee Phoenix, the first tribal newspaper in the United States, was printing information against the state of Georgia and the then proposed removal of Cherokee people. Georgia recognized free press as a key component of sovereignty, and, in their intent to upend Cherokee Nation, came to destroy it.
Action taken by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation last Thursday brought renewed attention to how important— and precarious— freedom of the press is to Indian Country today.
On the evening of Thursday November 8th, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Tribal Council repealed a 2015 law guaranteeing freedom of the press for their tribe. The law had created an independent editorial board, protected Mvskoke Media from political influence, and garnered national recognition as an emblem of free press in Indian Country.
Mvskoke Media will now operate under the Commerce Secretary, who reports directly to the Principal Chief.
Local and national media organizations have condemned the legislation as an attack on press freedom. Oklahoma Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists called the bill “not just a step, but a leap backwards” and in a statement issued Friday, the Native American Journalists Association warned that the tribe’s actions undermines sovereignty and self determination. After Thursday’s vote, former Mvskoke Media Manager, Sterling Cosper, Muscogee, resigned.
The Native American Journalists Association reported Friday, “Mvskoke Media staff must now receive prior approval on all published material.”
The controversial bill NCA 18-180 was introduced the same day it narrowly passed by a 7-6 vote. Council Speaker Lucian Tiger cast the tie-breaking vote at an emergency meeting, and Principal Chief James Floyd quickly signed it into law. Many of the repeal supporters voted for the original 2015 law, including Tiger.
Cosper says he was microwaving a breakfast burrito Thursday morning when he was contacted about the bill becoming public. The Mvskokee Media staff and board had not been consulted. Cosper, told Indian Country Today, “Like any other government, there are checks and balances and there needs to be formal platform for people to discuss their differences and have the proper information to do so.”
In defense of the bill Council member Jennings told the Tulsa World, “I feel like the newspaper itself could have more positive issues on the nation.”
Native American Journalists Association President Tristan Ahtone, Kiowa, says the truth, not positive press, should be the focus of tribal newspapers. “It’s not the role of journalists to tell positive stories. Its the role of journalists to document and report the activities of their tribal government,” he told Indian Country Today. “If citizens don’t have access to information, their government can do anything it wants.”
Indigenous journalists, surveyed by NAJA, reported the only place they could find accurate information about their tribal government was through tribal media. “Non-Native media doesn’t cover the day to day functions of tribal governments,” says Ahtone. “As tribal members we are all very familiar with rumor and hearsay about what our tribal governments are doing. Where we can short circuit that is having good reporters that are out there covering the issues that are important to tribal citizens. So we are all informed and know what’s going on.”
Ahtone says good reporting short-circuits the rumor mill so citizens “are all working with the same information.”
In 1998, only 64 tribes had freedom of the press laws, according to researchers Kevin Kemper and Litzy Galarza. Today, 76 percent of tribes protect free speech in their constitutions and 268 of the 573 Federally Recognized Tribes explicitly protect freedom of the press.
According to a survey conducted by the NAJA, journalists in Indian Country see the greatest threat to a free press as lack or resources and lack of editorial freedom. Two thirds of respondents reported stories about tribal affairs sometimes or frequently go unreported due to censorship.
In the three years that Mvskoke Media operated with press freedom, the outlet covered alleged sexual harassment by the Council Speaker, a DUI arrest of a tribal council member, health department layoffs, mismanaged HUD money, as well as tribal elections, council business, and the stories of everyday citizens such as a young woman’s battle with cancer.
“It was an honor to be part of Mvskoke Media. You can’t undo what we’ve accomplished just by reversing the bill,” says Cosper. “I encourage our citizens to make sure that free press comes back even stronger.”
As of publication, the NCA 18-180 bill sponsors Adam Jones, Pete Beaver, and James Jennings have not responded to request for comment.