A new Muscogee (Creek) Nation law repealing press freedom protections for the tribe’s in-house media has prompted a resignation and drawn fire for its “chilling” effect.
The legislation, approved by the National Council and signed into law this week, places the Mvskoke Media under the control of Principal Chief James Floyd.
“This is a chilling attack on press freedom by the National Council,” said Tristan Ahtone, president of the Native American Journalists Association.
“So what’s going on here with Mvskoke Media is it is funded by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is essentially trying to say that that outlet is actually a PR wing of the government and we will treat it as such so that things have to go through approval,” Ahtone said.
Floyd, who did not respond to an interview request, told the National Council that the tribe’s media would continue to be independent.
“I have not interfered with any story, tried to stop any story whatsoever and it (Mvskoke Media) will continue to be the same regardless of where it’s at,” Floyd said Thursday in a YouTube video posted on Mvskoke Media’s Facebook page.
Floyd’s signature on bill number NCA 18-180 repeals a 2015 tribal law that proponents said created an independent tribal news media.
During an emergency meeting on Thursday, the National Council briefly debated, then narrowly approved a measure to repeal the tribe’s Independent Media Act by a 7-6 vote.
Mvskoke Media comprises the tribe’s newspaper, Muscogee Nation News, as well as the television and radio broadcast outlets and graphic design department.
Mvskoke Media Manager Sterling Cosper resigned in protest following the vote.
“I don’t want to be complicit in a non-independent press again,” Cosper said Friday, referring to his time working for the tribe prior to passage of the Independent Media Act.
“I saw what the previous model did,” Cosper said. “If you are going to say that you are going to give citizens access to information, the structure has to reflect it in something like a bill.”
Cosper said no one approached him about the proposed change prior to it coming up Thursday.
“From my experience in covering some more drastic actions this is basically how they operate — quickly and quietly,” Cosper said.
When the press freedom bill was signed into law in 2015, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation joined two other Oklahoma tribes — the Cherokee and Osage — as having approved legislation which granted independent status to its media.
The Tulsa World attempted to reach all 16 members of the National Council for comment. Council representatives Joyce Deere and James Jennings, who both supported the measure, declined to comment.
National Council member Johnnie Greene, reached by telephone, spoke briefly about her support for the measure.
Green said the National Council “did the right thing.”
“It was under the executive branch before and there was no problems so I don’t look for any problems being back under the executive branch,” Greene said. “I don’t understand why they do not want back under them.”
In video of the Thursday meeting, council member Travis Scott said the 2015 law created an independent press without influence of any political interest or interference.
“And I think, in my opinion, if we approve this, this is where we are going with that,” said Scott, who opposed the bill.
Council member James Jennings, who supported the bill, acknowledged that “there is a lot of concerns” about the measure, but said he thought the bill was a “good piece of legislation.”
“I feel like the media ... it’s not personal against the media, but I feel like the newspaper itself could have more positive issues on the nation and not so much negative issues,” Jennings said.
Bill sponsor Adam Jones III and cosponsors Pete Beaver and James Jennings could not be reached for comment Friday.
However, Muscogee (Creek) Nation National Council Speaker Lucian Tiger III issued a statement Friday that read in part:
“NCA 18-180 returns Mvskoke Media to the Executive Branch and will continue to operate as it did before. Nothing in NCA 18-180 disbands or restricts Mvskoke Media’s ability to act as the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s media outlet despite attempts to brand the legislation as restrictive or suppressive of freedom of speech.”
Tribal spokeswoman Neely Tsoodle said Floyd was also a co-signer to the statement from Tiger.
Professional journalists, press freedom organizations and tribal media outlets, meanwhile, condemned the bill.
“The potential adoption of NCA 18-180 represents not just a step, but a leap backwards in an era where journalists nationwide are already struggling with public misconceptions about the relationship between reporters and government officials,” according to a joint statement issued by the Oklahoma Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and FOI Oklahoma.
The statement noted that the Mvskoke Media editorial board “serves as a crucial buffer between the newsroom and the tribe’s government.”
“The elimination of that safeguard opens the door for potentially reckless interference in the public’s right to know,” the statement continued.
Ahtone, Native American Journalists Association president, said the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has been at the forefront as free press advocates in the past.
“We would hope that Muscogee (Creek) Nation would recognize a tradition that indigenous journalism comes from in terms of storytelling, record keeping and keeping citizens informed,” Ahtone said. “We think that by passing this law, it erodes that tradition and threatens press freedom on the Nation.”
Ahtone said he did not know the motivation of the bill’s passage.
“But I do know that in silencing the press that does sort of echo the rhetoric that we hear in Washington D.C. these days,” Ahtone said. “It’s important to recognize that that kind of rhetoric and talk is unacceptable at the national level and doubly so at the tribal level.”
Shannon Shaw Duty, editor of the Osage News, warned the Muscogee (Creek) Nation National Council against approving the measure.
“You are showing your citizens that you have nothing to hide when you support and Independent Press,” Shaw Duty said in a statement posted Thursday on Facebook.
“As a member of the Osage Nation, when our elected officials don’t want their business out in the open, our tribal members think the worst,” Shaw Duty wrote.