New proposed free press bill shows promise, but still raises concerns
The Native American Journalists Association condemns the Muscogee (Creek) Nation National Council’s failure to pass strengthened free press protections for the tribe during the regular session, Sept. 28.
The proposed legislation, NCA 19-121, would have allowed tribal citizens to vote for free press protections during the MCN general election – a right that the National Council has denied its constituents after the bill failed to reach the required two-thirds majority.
Under this proposed free press ordinance, citizen approval would have been required to repeal or change the MCN Constitution. The bill also provided a funding structure for the tribe’s independent media outlet, Mvskoke Media.
NAJA supports a constitutional amendment to allow a citizen vote to enact future changes or repeals to free press protections. Legislation may be changed or overturned at any time with a majority vote of the full council.
The tribe’s original free press ordinance NCA 15-218 passed in 2015 (and had some minor amendments later) was unexpectedly repealed with only several hours notice of the vote during a November 2018 emergency session. Opponents of the bill cited too much negative coverage by Mvskoke Media.
NAJA and the Society of Professional Journalists Oklahoma Chapter have called the current free press law, “concerning.” Passed in February of 2019, the current law lacks comprehensive standards for the outlet’s management structure, including language for determining how the position is seated, and the insertion of an executive branch employee into departmental oversight.
A new bill, NCA 19-129, would replace the existing free press ordinance and is included in the agenda for an Oct. 17 legislative committee meeting.
The proposed bill would uphold the elimination of Mvskoke Media’s board nominee and expand the total number of seats from three to five, further quashing the department’s direct input in shaping agency leadership.
NCA 19-129 omits qualifications for the Mvskoke Media manager position (currently listed as director in the bill), including tribal citizenship or ethics requirements for the operational leader of the agency.
The bill adds language to reconcile tribal customs and traditions with SPJ ethics, creating a problematic opportunity for individual subjective claims to override journalism ethics.
NAJA’s mission “recognizes Native Americans as distinct peoples based on tradition and culture” and organizational standards respect tribal customs as part of ethical journalism. NCA 15-218, included a requirement to observe NAJA ethics and this language has been removed from NCA 19-129.
Tribal culture may also be addressed through citizenship requirements for the leadership positions.
The law states that board members, “shall not participate in any political campaign, or be involved in any tribal political activity, except to exercise his or her right as a citizen to express his or her individual opinion and cast his or her right to vote.”
If a board member is expressing their political opinion in a public manner, such as on social media or in any published format, they would be in violation of the SPJ ethics that this bill sets forth as its foundation. No penalties are outlined for violating this requirement.
The ‘operations experience’ requirement for board members could include a broad range of duties, not limited to: advertising, IT, secretarial work or labor such as a press operator — positions that may not require actual journalism or newsroom experience.
The proposed free press bill includes sustained funding structure and retains portions of the shield act to protect news sources.
However, these improvements are inconsequential without the added protection of a citizen vote and a clearly outlined leadership structure.
Transparency is critical in an era of disinformation. Indigenous journalists inform citizens of the inner workings of governments and hold elected representatives accountable. NAJA calls on elected officials to end censorship and pass legislation that protects journalists at MCN.