Muscogee (Creek) Nation actions demonstrates why it needs a free press law

Sterling Cosper

Sterling Cosper: The only thing worse than not having a free press bill is having one that is a sham

I was left out of Mvskoke Media’s coverage about Principal Chief James Floyd vetoing the reinstatement of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's free press law.

Floyd made assertions about my time as manager, and when I tried to respond with documentation against his statements in the story comments on Facebook, they censored them.

Floyd states that he only received two or three quarterly reports up his request while the free press law was in place.

In response, I posted a screenshot of emails that show me sending my report for a year straight and that each contained financials and a narrative on our progress.

The only solicitation made by his office for reports were the mass emails to all departments outlining the guidelines and deadlines.

I followed up by emailing my concerns to those with the current Mvskoke Media chain of command in ascending order, Managing Editor Rita Courtwright, Secretary of the Nation and Commerce Elijah McIntosh and Chief Floyd.

It is ironic that in response to the veto, Floyd states that assertions regarding them revoking freedom of the press and speech are not true, and goes on to state that in fact, “We’ve put into place a structure that helps solidify this.’

His statement actually only implies what is currently true about the department leadership going on up through positions to his office and not being free to report independently.

This is evident in them overlooking my input on statements related to me before publishing and then pulling my comments when I tried to get a fair say.

Floyd states that, what are functionally his subordinates, have final say in department coverage.

I can tell you from experience working at Mvskoke Media without a free press law, this means that anyone down the chain of command can be used by him to send an order through while he maintains plausible deniability.

Courtwright stated in an editorial that she has the choice to send coverage higher up. When you know where you sit on chain of command, what types of impulses do you think would motivate such a decision?

Being ultimately under the chief isn’t just about direct censorship, but there is plenty of potential for anyone over Mvskoke Media to decide on their own that certain things will get them in trouble because they are unflattering to the administration.

That potential alone, is why the free press ordinance existed. You simply cannot just tell citizens the department is independent without something that proves it.

In fact, there is cause for further suspicion of any leader that tells you to trust them that the news is independent while it structurally sits under them.

If it is not the leadership making calls to overlook certain viewpoints for their own good or that of their boss, every Mvskoke Media employee must now wonder if they might get in trouble for how they approach coverage.

Self-preservation is a powerful force and having Mvskoke Media ultimately under the chief inevitably affects the coverage. This isn’t just regarding Floyd’s subordinates; remember that it is also an incumbent election year for him.

In November, the repeal bill was introduced, passed through council and signed by Floyd all on the same day. At that time, he delegated responsibility for the repeal to the council, even though he had authority regarding this through his signature as set forth by the MCN Constitution.

Now that some legislators have had proper time to consider the repeal and others even just a chance to show up, a 9-6 majority of them voted to reinstate the bill in December but he still vetoed it this month.

It should be noted that the veto was made public after the 10 day signing window, excluding holidays and Sundays as afforded by the tribal Constitution. There has been no proof presented that Floyd met this deadline.

Back when Floyd delegated responsibility to the council for the repeal, a cosponsor of the effort Rep. James Jennings said there was too much negative coverage.

Now Floyd, states that negative coverage is not a concern and has shaped his justification largely around financial issues.

He states there is not enough oversight over the Mvskoke Media budget.

However, I submitted my annual budget for approval to the editorial board that was over my employment per our law and gave reports to them during the meetings throughout the year that were also set forth by the ordinance. Public notice was always given for these.

The law only gave me protections for direct oversight of day-to-day operations and personnel decisions.

From there, I sent the budget to the chief’s office for him to send on to a council committee with the rest of the tribal programs for approval as required in the Constitution. Throughout the year, the government is ultimately over the budget.

However, Floyd and his staff are pushing the narrative that no changes could be made with the free press bill in place. This is further despite the fact that he is in charge of the controller and they have access to updated information on all tribal funds throughout the year, including ours.

I will acknowledge that such inquiries are more accurate with direct cooperation from the department in question but we were never afforded the opportunity.

Floyd reported a large fiscal deficit in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Health Department when he took office and requested all programs submit their budgets with 10 percent cuts.

We complied without question and retained this cut on up to the time I resigned.

Specifically, he mentioned the non-news personnel at Mvskoke Media as excessive.

However, many of these positions are involved in key administrative duties or technical production that keep the news coverage operating.

The other jobs were our graphics, printing and marketing team that were given to us to try and become more self-sufficient as we confirmed when Jennings asked us about this in 2015 during the meeting when the initial bill was passed.

This presented a unique challenge as the team was formed under a tribal services model and after the bill, remained under a government finance and contract system not conducive to growing a business.

I recognized this possible challenge when I was promoted to manager at the end of 2016 and immediately suggested to the board and Floyd that we might reexamine their placement in the tribe if fiscal viability becomes an issue.

No one from the legislative or executive branch expressed discontent with the model before the bill was repealed.

In fact, two of the repeal cosponsors, Reps. Adam Jones and Pete Beaver sit on the committee that approved my budget. It is interesting to note that Jones was not at the vote for the repeal of which he was the main sponsor or at my budget hearing in October.

Beaver voted to pass my budget.

Over the two years that followed my promotion, the public relations manager set about duplicating our skillset in her department including graphics and printing services.

However, McIntosh made statements an editorial, which gave the impression that this duplication of services was somehow our fault. I understand that public relations manager is no longer with the tribe, effective shortly after I left.

Finally, Floyd has raised concerns about the qualifications for the board and how they limit prospects for future members.

The law called for one nominee from the chief, council and Mvskoke Media that were confirmed through the legislative process.

They had to meet certain qualifications and uphold certain standards, which ensured they were independent of the government and enforced sound editorial and operational standards.

Floyd’s nominee sat on our board and he has never proven how any of the sitting board was deficient or that there is a lack of qualified candidates for when their terms are up.

He has mentioned amendments that are aimed at addressing these unsubstantiated concerns with the board, but it is important to note that legislating many of these concerns could potentially leave the preexisting board unseated.

The ability of any tribal independent agency board member to serve the entirety of their term as defined by the entity’s establishing law is a key part of it actually being independent.

There are specific provisions in tribal code for removing these board members in order to uphold this independence.

Throwing out the entire establishing law and removing seated members only to reinstate a new version of it with new board members represents the assertion of direct government oversight over a supposedly independent body.

Floyd has already tried to introduced amendments related to the board during the reinstatement effort and mentioned the proposals in his veto message, but none of this language has been made public to my knowledge.

This is very reminiscent of how the repeal was conducted. The only thing worse than not having a free press bill is having one that is a sham.

The last law being undone in one day only demonstrated that those who supported it don’t need compromises in their favor regarding free press moving forward.

Actually, Mvskoke Media needs more protections through a citizen vote towards a Constitutional amendment that can only be undone with their approval.

Sterling Cosper, Muscogee (Creek) journalist, resigned as the manager of the tribal media department of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation after the council's action to repeal the nation's free press act.

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