Analysis: Indian Country Journalists Face Severe Limits on Press Freedom

Tribal governments own nearly three-quarters of tribal newspapers and radio stations. Too often, that puts politicians in charge of what goes in the newspaper and which reporters and editors keep their jobs.

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Imagine that your local newspaper is owned and controlled by elected officials of your city or town council. Imagine that there is no media other than the local newspaper that covers events, explains governmental actions or investigates citizen questions or concerns. Taking this fantasy a step further, you would likely also imagine that elected officials would exercise control over what the local newspaper covers.

This state of affairs is no fantasy. For people living on many Indian reservations in the United States, it is an unfortunate reality.

As past president of the Native American Journalist’s Association (NAJA), I witnessed many of my colleagues working for tribal press who were fired for performing even the basic journalistic duties such as publishing the tribal police blotter. One colleague was fired for reporting that a tribal council member was arrested for drunk driving; the editor was also fired for allowing her to report the fact.

According to a report by Jodi Rave of the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance, tribal governments own about 72 percent of tribal newspapers and radio stations.

(Source: American Indian Media Today: Tribes Maintain Majority Ownership as Independent Journalists Seek Growth. A report by Jodi Rave | Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance)

As sovereign nations, tribes can choose to enact open records laws and/or laws guaranteeing freedom of the press, or not.

Even tribes that have open records laws may not abide by them. Having sat for hours outside various tribal secretaries’ offices begging for documents that would be easily accessible in mainstream jurisdictions, I can attest to this fact.

There is little recourse for journalists if tribes refuse to provide public information. As sovereigns, tribes are immune from judicial proceedings without their consent or Congressional waiver.

It should come as no surprise that politicians, Native and non-Native, have a vested interest in controlling the flow of information and criticism surrounding their offices and activities. If mainstream politicians could control the press as in Indian Country, I have no doubt they would do so. Our current president is engaged in a constant attempt to direct or discredit the media depending on his whim.

Although the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 guarantees tribal citizens a free press immune from government influence, tribal governments’ control of media’s purse strings acts as a potent deterrent to journalists looking to report the truth.

For example, Lori Edmo-Suppah, also past president of NAJA, was fired for publishing letters to the editor with which tribal council members disagreed. Edmo-Suppah was and is still editor of the Sho-Ban News on the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho. A citizen of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, she has the loyal support of tribal citizens who actively protested her firing, insisting she be reinstated.

Sometimes, however, even citizen support isn’t enough to safeguard journalistic freedom. The best route is financial independence but even that can be tough to navigate on some reservations. An independent reservation newspaper I won’t name faced possible financial failure when tribal leaders threatened to withdraw their monthly payment for publishing tribal council minutes because the editor published a police report describing a tribal leader’s arrest for possession of drugs. In the end, the editor fired the reporter to keep the tribe’s business. On large geographically isolated reservations with few businesses, tribal government can be a powerful customer.

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Financial independence, however, is the most sustainable way to keep news flowing in Indian Country. Tom Arviso of the Navajo Nation worked long and hard to gain the financial independence for the Navajo Times that allowed him and his colleagues to report on the doings of the Navajo tribal government. When the Times was owned by the tribe, Arviso was fired for reporting on corruption within then tribal chairman Peter MacDonald’s administration. In 2004 Arviso helped the newspaper gain independence; the paper continues to publish today. According to the publication’s Facebook page, “The Navajo Times exists to serve the Navajo people. … The great responsibility of freedom of the press includes pursuing facts and presenting them honestly and fairly. Information and the way it is presented must be accurate with a full effort to include relevant views of a subject, such as the opportunity to respond to criticism.”

This newspaper operates independently and holds its editorial staff to remain free from outside influence.”

Although regional newspapers and broadcast news sometimes include coverage of reservations within their news cycles, they often give scant resources and attention to the less than major events in Indian Country.

Indeed as rural news loses ground and support, citizens of reservations are the hardest hit in these newly developing news deserts.

In addition to lack of news stories about tribal leadership, citizens may have little access to information about basic services and events in the community. Not everyone has time to visit the tribal office to learn about events of the day.

Mark Trahant of the Shoshone Bannock tribe and editor of recently relaunched Indian Country Today.

Mark Trahant of the Shoshone Bannock tribe has launched the latest national news website covering Indian Country with the reboot of the former Indian Country Today Media Network. Indian Country Today was first created by Tim Giago of the Lakota Nation in the 1980’s on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He later sold the publication in 1998  to the Oneida Nation of New York. The Oneidas renamed the mostly online news organization as Indian Country Today Media Network and operated it until 2017. From the beginning, ICTMN was a losing  financial proposition for the tribe, but they helped achieve their goal of reporting on Indian Country from a Native perspective. In 2017, they donated the publication and its assets to the National Congress of American Indians, a nonprofit advocacy organization representing U.S. tribal interests.

Although many in Indian Country have expressed concerns that Trahant will struggle to avoid interference by NCAI, he has worked hard in recent months to create an effective administrative and financial firewall protecting the publication.

Regardless of politics, however, Native people are eager for Indian Country Today’s survival for the simple reason that we desperately need authentic, informed coverage of Indian Country.

Bryan Pollard

As Bryan Pollard of the Cherokee Nation and former president of NAJA told me in an earlier interview for the Columbia Journalism Review, “We’ve learned time and time again that if we want our stories told in a way that is accurate and provides context, we have to tell those stories ourselves.”

Indian Country Today founder Giago also told me, “The Native press offers a voice to the voiceless. That’s the most important thing about Native media.”

Mary Annette Pember is a frequent contributor to Indian Country Today, where she reports on culture, nations, history and education. She is the author of Indian Country Today’s Intergenerational Trauma: Understanding Natives’ Inherited Pain. Pember has also written extensively for the Daily Yonder.

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