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OKSPJ & NAJA: Proposed MCN free press bill raises concerns
The Society of Professional Journalists, Oklahoma Pro Chapter (OKSPJ) and Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) commend the ongoing efforts at Muscogee (Creek) Nation to reinstate a free press ordinance. This legal protection is vital to ensuring its informational outlet, Mvskoke Media, is free from influence by the tribal government.
However, the devil is in the details when it comes to how a bill is branded versus what it really accomplishes, as dictated in the fine print.
A new draft bill, NCA 19-031 passed in MCN legislative committee earlier this month, which states the Mvskoke Media Editorial Board will adhere to SPJ ethics. This is also stated in the original bill; however, language related to NAJA standards has been removed in the new version.
NCA 19-031 is set for a final vote Feb. 23 before it moves to signature consideration by the principal chief.
NAJA and OKSPJ are concerned with some of the new bill's language in relation to ethical standards.
Under the SPJ Code of Ethics, outlets are given the charge to act independently from political influence, as mirrored in the establishing language in the previous and proposed versions of the MCN free press laws.
However, part of what makes any government board truly independent is that its members have a set term, and clear parameters for how members may be removed before their term expires, due to issues like misconduct, etc.
While the recently proposed bill includes board term limits, it does not reseat the original board, which was dissolved by NCA 18-180. This compromises the purity of MMEB’s proper independence from the tribal government.
Tribal officials never levied any formal complaints against any members of the former editorial board or made any justification for their replacement.
This action effectively bypasses these tenure requirements that are included in both bill versions and creates an inherit conflict in NCA 19-031.
A board is not truly independent if a legislative body can rescind the free press law in its entirety and introduce a new one that removes all sitting members, without regard to any official stated process for removal.
The previous law established board guidelines for hiring the Mvskoke Media manager, ensuring further operational independence.
NCA 19-031 lacks language dictating the manager selection process and personal conduct of the day-to-day Mvskoke Media leader. So while the law states editorial content must be free of influence by the tribal government, does the lack of parameters for the manager leave an opportunity for this position to be directly chosen by the government?
Without any free press law, the department currently sits under the Secretary of the Nation and Commerce, an executive branch employee. The proposed bill would still allow the executive branch official to be directly involved in drafting policies and managing the department budget.
OKSPJ and NAJA acknowledge the struggle of all media outlets to maintain a separation between fiscal and editorial operations.
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.
The former Mvskoke Media manager was accountable to the board for budget and policy oversight and the department budget was subject to the same approval process of any other tribal program - submitted annually to the chief and Council for approval.
Our respective organizations are concerned that the direct and more specific involvement of another government official leaves the potential for this oversight to spill into editorial operations and control.
This concern is increased when looking at the shield law portion of the act, which relates to how the department’s editorial sources are protected. The Secretary of the Nation and Commerce is listed as a protected employee under this section.
Why would this official need protection regarding editorial sources if they are not involved in editorial operations?
The Secretary of the Nation in Commerce is tasked with establishing ad policies, which also have bearing on meeting editorial deadlines.
There were avenues to address many of the stated fiscal concerns without such brash actions and the previous leadership has not been allowed to formally respond to any of these specific complaints.
This denies any due process, which is important to the true independence of the department’s leadership as well as true transparency for the tribal citizens regarding how their would-be independent media outlet is being operated.
Finally, we believe the actions taken in relation to Mvskoke Media set a precedent for tribal news throughout Indian Country and urge the MCN government to take this into consideration as they move forward with this process.
UPDATE Muscogee (Creek) Nation votes to repeal Free Press Act, citing need for ‘more positive’ coverage http://journalrecord.com/2018/11/08/muscogee-creek-nation-votes-to-repeal-free-press-act-citing-need-for-more-positive-coverage/?fbclid=IwAR2RCXmCeT2j87R5Cle_gs3F2IzeoB36Ct69y2mjpK22ilgcuqsZBQux1XA
To the honorable members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation National Council, The Oklahoma Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and FOI Oklahoma stand in solidarity with our colleagues at Mvskoke Media and strenuously oppose NCA 18-180.
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation is one of three tribes in Oklahoma and one of a handful nationally with codified protections for its media outlets. When the tribe’s Independent Press Act was signed into law just three years ago, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation was hailed for taking such a huge step forward and giving its own people a chance to tell the tribe’s stories.
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. Under the current law, Mvskoke Media’s 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. Even if the current Secretary of the Nation has no interest in exercising day-to-day editorial control, there is no guarantee that his successors may follow suit.
We fully acknowledge that reporters are human and make mistakes occasionally, but those concerns should be addressed in civil conversations rather than through punitive legislation.
The Mvskoke Media staff has received state and national recognition for their fair, unflinching coverage of the good, the bad and the ugly within their communities. They must be given every opportunity to continue that work without fear of censorship attempts -- or worse -- from elected officials.
Respectfully, The officers of the Oklahoma Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and FOI Oklahoma
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