Free press in Native media

Andy Jenness (left), Benny Polacca (middle) and Angel Ellis speaking Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, at the Free Press Panel. (Photo by Hunter Hotulke)

By Hunter Hotulke

PRIOR LAKE, Minn. ー People use censorship to get rid of things some might consider inappropriate, but what happens when stories and facts fall under this scrutiny? Many tribal publications are under government supervision of tribal offices and are restricted on what they are allowed to report.

The Red Press Initiative studies and reports on the perception of free press in Indian Country. In a 2019 survey conducted by The Red Press Initiative, it found that 46 percent of respondents used tribal newspapers or newsletters as sources of information on their respective tribes. Osage News senior reporter Benny Polacca, who is Hopi, Gila River Pima, Tohono O’odham and Havasupai, spoke at the National Native Media Conference Wednesday, about free press in Native media.

“Our paper is circulated to about 7,000 people and is sent to just about every state,” he said. “We enjoy having that wide audience to inform everyone what is happening in our tribe. These wide audiences allow tribes to stay informed about their internal affairs and hold our leaders accountable.”

Polacca described an incident that occurred at the publication he works for, in which, the tribal leader was seen with a non-tribal member. This raised questions as to who this person was and about their relation to the tribe. Requests from the Osage News about the individual’s contract were repeatedly ignored until a lawsuit was filed that lasted three months in lower tribal court. Osage News won the lawsuit and were granted access to the contract. It was discovered that the man was just a consultant to the tribe.

The Red Press Initiative survey presentation on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. (Photo by Hunter Hotulke)

“This is one of the ways tribal leaders try and control what is reported, by not allowing access to the documents that could paint them in a negative light,” Polacca said.

Passing and repealing laws such as Muscogee Free Press Act and putting reporters under certain employment statuses is a situation Angel Ellis, a Muscogee (Creek) citizen and reporter for Mvskoke Media, knows too well.

“I came back to the tribe in 2018,” she said. “My tribe had adopted free press legislation in the code book and it seemed to be doing pretty well. There was a really talented staff doing all they were expected of them as a multimedia department. They reported on hard news issues along with features. I came back in August 2018 and by Nov. 15, the free press legislation was appealed and I’ve spent the last year working under a suppressed tribal media.”

Ellis described a situation where, after experiencing backlash from tribal media consumers over the repeal of a free press law, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation passed a law referred to within the tribe as a Shield Law. It classifies the tribe’s Secretary of Commerce and the Nation, a Cabinet-level position, as a journalist, thus giving an executive branch employee editorial oversight.

The Red Press Initiative reported that 32 percent of tribal media employees were required to seek prior approval from tribal government, a fact that 53 percent of tribal media consumers were unaware of.

“A lot of times I have to sit down and have conversations with people face-to-face and when they ask why this didn’t get reported,” Ellis said. “I have to say, ‘Yeah, it should’ve been reported but it got squashed.’

“There are times that I can’t guarantee that reporting on those issues is going to actually reach people.”

Editor’s note: On Thursday, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation National Council committee unanimously approved a bill to add a referendum to the tribe’s Nov. 2 general election ballot that if passed, would add press protections to the tribe’s constitution. Continuing coverage is available through Mvskoke Media.

Leave a Reply