Exposing corruption can be hazardous to a reporter’s or editor’s employment in Indian Country. Just ask some of the editors and reporters who have been fired for covering tribal issues. And it’s not just tribal budgets and editorial control that Native press outlets must find a way around. Because tribes are exempt from state Freedom of Information Act laws, obtaining public records can be nearly impossible.
Some of the most well-known cases of media being sacked for doing their jobs include Tom Arviso of the Navajo Times, who was fired by Navajo Nation Chairman Peter MacDonald along with the rest of the staff for reporting on corruption within the government, and Lori Edmo, who was terminated as editor of the Sho-Ban News for reporting on both sides of a recall campaign at the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, which owns the paper.
Both were later rehired. But these cases, and more recent cases, cast a pall over Indian Country media in their pursuit of exercising their First Amendment rights.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the rights of the press to operate free from state and federal government intervention. However, in Native America, tribal media outlets frequently find themselves caught between tribal governments that hold the purse strings, mistrustful communities and loopholes in state public records laws regarding tribal records.
“Tribes are different than other governments,” says Anthony S. Broadman, partner in the Native law firm Galanda Broadman and former newspaper reporter, “and every tribe is different, but, free press guarantees are important for Native people for the same reasons as the general public—the press keeps people informed, and it serves as a check on authoritarianism.”
Broadman says a political entity or polity, needs to be informed with a free press, “without a well-informed polity, it’s hard for governments to succeed.”Among other benefits, “a good free press could help assuage rumor mongering.”
There is one beneficial accessibility factor that exists in Indian Country. Tribal members have much more access to their leadership, Broadman says. “I couldn’t walk into the Oval Office and talk to the President like a tribal member can walk into the tribal office and talk to their chairman, president, chief or governor.”
Fortunately, Arviso, Edmo and other sacked reporters and editors escaped the fate of Indian Country’s first editor, Elias Boudinot. Boudinot founded the Cherokee Phoenix in 1828. After exposing the abuses of Georgia state militia members who were creating havoc to force Cherokees to leave their homeland, Boudinot became convinced the only way his nation could survive was to accept relocation to faraway Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. On June 22, 1839, Boudinot paid for that stance with his life.
Some mainstream reporters have used federal records to report on tribal doings, particularly where grants or appropriations require fiscal reporting. One reporter, Dennis Wagner of the Arizona Republic, accessed a U.S. Housing and Urban Development audit on one tribe’s housing authority misuse of funds for a 2014 story. But, FOIA requests can be time-consuming and expensive for small newsrooms or freelancers.
For journalist-turned-attorney and educator, Kevin R. Kemper, notes the dilemma of tribal media being denied access to public records that most journalists take for granted. He says it is the most concerning issue facing Indian Country media. “I kept hearing people talking about the problem and why there wasn’t a solution,” Kemper, who has Choctaw and Cherokee heritage.
To support tribal reporters and editors, the Native American Journalists Association has taken a leading role in supporting free press issues in tribal media. Since its founding in 1983, “NAJA has been advocating for a free press in Indian Country,” says NAJA Board President Bryan T. Pollard, Cherokee. “But free press continues to be elusive; it tends to be the exception and not the rule.”
The organization published a document detailing the “essential elements of an independent tribal media.” Some of those elements include establishing an independent editorial board, allowing public access to tribal records, a journalist shield act and, of course, a clear statement by the tribe establishing freedom of its press and journalists.
A Native journalist interviews a tribal leader in Washington DC outside of the National Museum of the American Indian. Photo Vincent Schilling
NAJA has established the NAJA Legal Hotline for Journalists to support its members to obtain information about freedom of speech and press issues in Indian Country. The organization has also established the Elias Boudinot Free Press Award, which honors a “publication or media outlet that has shown dedication and commitment to upholding freedom of the press, information and transparency in Indian Country,” according to NAJA’s website. Kemper helped with the research that established the hotline, and still takes calls. NAJA has also formed a partnership with a Washington, D.C. based law firm to provide information to journalist members of the organization.
Kemper visited the archives at the University of Arkansas Little Rock’s Sequoyah National Research Center, where he read memos issued by Richard LaCourse, Yakima, first news director of the American Indian Press Association, which preceded NAJA. “I was struck by LaCourse’s memos, where he said he wanted NAJA to be proactive,” Kemper says.
To date, four tribal media outlets operate under free press ordinances. Pollard notes that the Cherokee Phoenix, of which he was once editor, Smoke Signals, Mvskoke Media and the Osage News are all now operating under free press rules.
However, Kemper says that the Navajo Nation provides the best example of how an unfettered free press should operate: “The Navajo Times was separated from the tribe,” and now operates as an independent newspaper, he says. However, Kemper also acknowledges that smaller tribal communities may not have the economic base to provide the advertising revenues that keep most newspapers afloat.
And, there are more tribal media outlets that are independent of any government controls. These include News From Indian Country, Tribal Business Journal and the new Native Business Magazine, News From Native California, Native Sun News and other such publications. Native America Calling and National Native News provide news and talk over radio waves and online. High Country News now has a tribal affairs desk.
Indian Country Today is owned by the educational, nonprofit arm of the National Congress of American Indians, and operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.
To Pollard, that says that the traditional tribal media model isn’t sustainable. “We can’t rely on tribes to report on themselves.” Pollard says that tribal citizens should pressure their governments to enact free press ordinances.
When asked about some journalists’ strategies like cultivating a tribal council member to give them documents, Pollard replied, “Journalists should not need workarounds, since the press are the ones who expose fraud and embezzlement.”