Liz Gray/Managing Editor
OKMULGEE, Oklahoma – This September, Muscogee (Creek) voters will be given the opportunity to vote on a constitutionally protected free press.
The ballot question would add Article XIV to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Constitution, titled “Independent Free Press” and reads as follows:
Section 1. The Muscogee Creek Nation shall have an Independent Press that shall be free from political interest or undue influence, harassment, censorship, control or restrictions from any department of the government of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in order to provide unbiased news and reports objectively to the Muscogee (Creek) citizens.
Section 2. For the purposes of this legislation, Independent Press is meant to include all editorial outlets: Television, Radio and Creative.
Section 3. Editorial Board. The Independent Press shall be governed by an Independent Editorial Board. The Editorial Board alone shall have the power to hire a Director. The Director shall over see Mvskoke Media personnel, including hiring staff.
Section 4. Funding. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation shall fund day to day operations and publication of the Independent Press.
Full legislation of the question comes from NCA 21-053, which was passed on May 22 during regular session of the MCN National Council and was signed by Principal Chief David Hill on June 2.
The amendment to the constitution requires two-thirds majority vote in the Sept. 18 election to be fully ratified.
If passed, MCN would become the first tribal nation to add constitutional free press for its tribal news.
Established in the late 1970s, Muscogee Nation News has been a pillar in providing information to Muscogee (Creek) citizens in relation to the tribal nation and celebrating accomplishments of its citizenship over the years. The newspaper has made tremendous strides in Native American journalism, yet has still had to face the reality of political influence when reporting about the Nation.
In 2015, the National Council passed legislation that established freedom of the press for Mvskoke Media and separated the department from Public Relations which had direct oversight from the Principal Chief.
However, in 2018 an Emergency Session was held where Council repealed the free press law with a vote of 7-6 citing negative news coverage and budget discrepancies, but did not specify which department was under scrutiny for their budget. The repeal included three departments to be placed under the Secretary of the Nation: Mvskoke Media, Tourism and Recreation, and Public Relations.
According to a Letter from the Editor published in the December 15, 2018 edition of Mvskoke News, an approval process was set into place “to ensure that what is reported is accurate and truthful.” This process included the pipeline of news to be filtered through the Secretary of the Nation.
In 2019, National Council passed the “Shield Act,” which established an Editorial Board to review all editorial content, yet financial oversight and budgeting still remained under the Secretary of the Nation.
The Society of Professional Journalists, Oklahoma Pro Chapter and Native American Journalists Association raised concerns in a press release over the legislation allowing an executive branch employee’s direct involvement in managing the department’s budget.
“In this instance and with many tribal outlets, we recognize the complexity of an independent entity that still receives tribal funds, but also believe that editorial and fiscal oversight are not mutually exclusive as it pertains to this structure.”
Mvskoke Media operated under the Secretary of the Nation until July 2020, when free press was restored through the “Independent Muscogee (Creek) Press Act,” which eliminated oversight from the executive cabinet member.
A new Editorial Board was placed over editorial, department policies and budget for Mvskoke Media with the passage of the 2020 Act.
NAJA membership manager and OKSPJ President Sterling Cosper served as the MM Director prior to the 2018 repeal and resigned in protest after the vote came down eliminating free press.
“Adding protections to the constitution would ensure that free press cannot be repealed again without citizen consent. Guaranteed funding ties up the other major area of concern where the tribe could cut off or significantly diminish fiscal support for the department, crippling its editorial operations,” Cosper said.
Arguments have risen that Mvskoke Media should be funding themselves as an independent free press, but Cosper raised his own concerns about this way of thinking regarding funding, something not typically asked of an independent agency at the tribe.
“MM continues to pursue its own enterprises to generate revenue. However, for the foreseeable future, this income will not be sufficient to sustain the level of quality needed to pursue all the major stories happening and that will happen regarding MCN,” he said.
“Citizens have the right to ask for a guarantee that the information they receive from Mvskoke Media is unfiltered by the tribal government. This is to give them the full picture of tribal affairs so they are able to best instruct their elected officials about their civic priorities as the ultimate rulers of the tribe.”
Observations of the 2019 MCN elections from the Carter Center resulted in the recommendation of constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression and for law to provide sufficient safeguards to ensure the political independence of the tribal-owned media.
The not-for-profit nongovernmental organization, which promotes the protection of human rights and advancement of democracy, also recommended a constitutional amendment guaranteeing free press supported by the people would reduce the frequency of legislative changes.
The question will be located on the back side of the ballot.