Oklahoma Tribe votes to repeal free press law

Updated: The Muscogee Creek National Council in Oklahoma voted 7-6 on Thursday, Nov. 8, to repeal the Tribe’s three-year-old independent Free Press Act.

The deciding vote was cast by Speaker Lucien Tiger, who was the subject of a December 2017 story that accused him of sexually harassing a female colleague.

The new bill was signed by Principal Chief James Floyd, which places the Tribe’s Mvskoke Media under the control of the Tribe’s administration.

Muskogee District Rep. Pete Beaver said he supported repeal because there was “too much negativity in the newspaper. There just needs to be more positive coverage.”

The bill dissolves the Tribe’s Editorial Board, which serves as a buffer between government influence and independent news coverage of the Muscogee Creek National Council. The newspaper will now be supervised by the Office of the Secretary of the Nation and Commerce Elijah W. McIntosh.

In reaction to the vote, Mvskoke Media Manager Sterling Cosper submitted his resignation, which must be accepted by Floyd. Cosper and the Tribe’s three-member Editorial Board were not consulted regarding the bill and only found out about it less than 10 hours before the meeting.

In 2016, the Native American Journalists Association awarded Mvskoke Media the Elias Boudinot Free Press Award for its Free Press Act. The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde won the same award in 2017 for its Independent Tribal Press Ordinance.

“We are concerned for our colleagues covering the Muscogee (Creek) Nation,” said Tristan Ahtone (Kiowa), president of the Native American Journalists Association, on Nov. 8 before the vote. “For more than three years, Tribal leadership has supported a free press and the sudden reversal of this policy is frightening. The Muscogee (Creek) National Council’s move should serve as a wake-up call to Tribal reporters and Nations that press freedom is an integral Indigenous value that should be defended, preserved and encouraged throughout Indian Country.”

“This outlet is a critical component to maintaining public trust,” Cosper said. “There is no other outlet dedicated to reporting on the activities of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and our independence is paramount to a healthy, vibrant community.”

The Native American Journalists Association, of which Smoke Signals is a member, states that press freedom is an essential element of Tribal sovereignty and self-determination. “An independent, Indigenous press serves the public interest by informing its readers about important news and cultural events, is a platform for diverse voices across the community, and reports on governmental affairs to hold those in power accountable to the people,” NAJA says.

NAJA issued a press release Friday, Nov. 9, condemning the actions of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and asking its citizens to support an independent press, "free of government influence and censorship."

"The Muscogee (Creek) National Council's actions undermine this role and demean this sacred responsibility," the press release stated. "Like many Tribes, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is bound by a common history catalogued by stories -- stories of joy, pain, happiness and ultimately, triumph ... For centuries, colonial policies have destroyed Indigenous journalism. We have been fighting to restore them for generations. We urge citizens of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation to contact their representatives and demand that Mvskoke Media be allowed to remain independent."

According to a recent survey conducted by NAJA, more than 83 percent of Native American media professionals reported that stories on Tribal government go unreported sometimes, frequently or always due to censorship.

"It is the opinion of NAJA that journalists should be bound by the ethical obligation to seek truth and report it."

Floyd's signature on the bill means a reduction of the number of newspapers not under the control of their respective governments in Indian Country from six to five.

Attorney Kevin Kemper, who helped found NAJA’s legal hotline, attended the meeting and said he could not remember any instances of a Tribe repealing press protections.

“I’m extremely concerned that this sets a terrible precedent for the rest of Indian Country,” he said. “I’m from rural Oklahoma. If you put a major improvement on a ranch, you don’t tear it up and throw it up after a couple of years if something doesn’t work right. You fix it. … This is unprecedented.”

 

Includes information from the Oklahoma City Journal Record.