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Press freedoms remain elusive for many American Indian journalists, who are repeatedly censored or fired by the tribal councils that…

Press freedoms remain elusive for many American Indian journalists, who are repeatedly censored or fired by the tribal councils that own their publications

From the Winter 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 16.

By Mark Connors

Lori-Edmo Suppah was just doing her job when she ran a handful of letters to the editor in the Sho-Ban News last October. Readers wrote to the American Indian newspaper, located on the Fort Hall reservation in southern Idaho, to voice criticisms of their tribal government, which was so unpopular at the time council members were fighting to stop a recall election.

The public debate did little to move democracy forward, however. Just days after the letters were published, Edmo-Suppah, the paper’s editor and a past president of the Native American Journalists Association, was out of a job.

Fred Auck, chairman of the tribe’s governing board, which owns the News, fired Edmo-Suppah for what he called “gross insubordination.” But many tribal members, including the 20 who converged upon the Tribal Business Center the next week in protest, believed Edmo-Suppah was dismissed because she dared to stand up to the government.

American Indian journalists say the story isn’t unusual, and it underscores the significant lack of press freedoms among the 458 federally recognized tribes in the United States today. Since the vast majority of the approximately 200 American Indian newspapers are owned by tribal councils, little leeway is given to any analysis of government activity. Reporters are often prohibited from writing critical stories about tribal leaders, and access to tribal records on most reservations is nonexistent. Repor ters who dare to question the tribal government will often find themselves out of a job, or their newsrooms shut down.

“When you have any government owning newspapers, then government, by the nature of the beast, is going to try to control information,” says Dennis McAuliffe, a University of Montana journalism professor and a former editor at The Washington Post. “If the Bush administration owned your magazine, then you’d probably be out of a job, too.”

“Working as a Native journalist is a balancing act all the time,” says Mark Trahant, editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and a former editor of the Navajo Times. “Most feel an obligation to report stories fairly, but they realize that regardless of how accurate the story is, there’s always that threat of being terminated.”

American Indian journalists often complain that government ownership of the tribal press runs counter to their roles as the watchdogs of their communities. Tribal reservations are sovereign nations, and do not have to comply with many federal or state laws, including freedom of information and open meetings laws. Legally, tribe members enjoy the same constitutional rights as every American, but there is no independent safeguard on reservations to protect those rights. All claims of constitutional violations on reservations are heard in tribal courtrooms, by tribal judges, who are appointed by tribal governments.

In recognizing the injustices that many tribal members faced, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act in 1968, extending civil liberties to American Indians living on reservations. The law stated that “No Indian tribe, in exercising the powers of self-governance, shall make any law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.”

However, in 1978 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, ruling that all violations of rights guaranteed under the act, with the exception of writ of habeas actions, fell under tribal jurisdiction.

American Indian journalists have long sought independence in their reporting on tribal reservations. Some tribes have enacted laws guaranteeing press freedoms, but governing councils have often displayed a willingness to ignore those laws, as well as orders by tribal courts.

In 1985, the Navajo Times helped uncover gross financial abuses on the part of Tribal Council President Peter MacDonald. As a result of the story, MacDonald shut down the newspaper and fired the entire staff. He was later convicted on federal corruption, bribery and racketeering charges.

The problem, says Ron Walters, executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, is that most American Indian newspapers are almost fully subsidized by their local tribes.

“As long as the tribal governments are paying for these newspapers, then they will ultimately have control,” says Kevin Gover, a law professor at Arizona State University and the former assistant secretary of the interior for indian affairs in the Clinton administration. “They can pass all the resolutions and all the laws they want saying they won’t interfere, but in the end, if they really want to, they will.”

Such problems are not limited to the tribal press, either. Reporters from mainstream publications located near American Indian reservations often find themselves harassed and denied access to tribal records, meetings and hearings.

When Frank Zoretich, a reporter for the Albuquerque Tribune, tried to cover a story on the Isleta Pueblo reservation in New Mexico in December 2002, he was stopped at every step. Zoretich was looking into claims that a tribal council member was removed from a ballot for reelection because the council member had published a newsletter critical of the tribe’s management.

Zoretich attempted to cover a hearing on the issue, but was immediately escorted out of the courtroom by a tribal police officer. According to Zoretich’s sources, the tribal court ordered the election delayed two weeks, but the council ignored the ruling, asked for the resignations of every tribal court judge on the reservation, and held the election as scheduled.

Zoretich says he later called the tribal council’s office to get the elections results and was told by the woman who answered the phone, “I’m not allowed to give those out.”

“It’s really a whole different ballgame,” says Zoretich, whose paper attempts to regularly cover stories on the several reservations surrounding the city.

Such anecdotal tales of corruption within tribal governments, which operate in near-total secrecy, are plentiful. Time magazine reported in a December 2002 story that many American Indians continue to live in poverty while non-Indian investors are reaping great financial rewards — thanks, in part, to backroom deals. “More than 90 percent of contracts between tribes and outside gaming-management companies operate with no oversight,” Time reported.

Martin Reinhardt, director of the Center of Native American Studies, located at Northern Michigan University, says a free press would bring some accountability to these tribal governments.

“It would provide a real public service for so many of our tribes,” Reinhardt says.

The Navajo Times, one of the pioneers of the tribal press, became a private corporation in October, giving new hope to American Indian reporters fighting tribal government intrusions. Unlike most tribal publications, the Times was able to earn its financial independence thanks to the size of its readership and the reservation’s proximity to large advertising markets.

Walters, of the NAJA, says advertisers are often wary of investing in tribal publications because government ownership makes them appear as an illegitimate source of news.

The Navajo Nation Tribal Council voted 66-1 on Oct. 23 to approve the newspaper’s independence, concluding a five-year process to free the publication from tribal government control. According to a Nov. 3, 2002, story in Editor & Publisher, six different Navajo Times editors had been fired by tribal leaders since the newspaper’s founding in 1961.

Today, the weekly publication, based in Window Rock, Ariz., has a circulation of 22,500. Unlike most other tribal publications, the Times has been financially stable in recent years, reporting a net profit of $300,000 in 2002. Navajo Tribal Council leaders have already voiced hope that the newspaper will expand into a daily and compete against nontribal publications in the area.

For tribal publications without the strong financial base of the Times, the Cherokee Nation stands as the model to follow.

In July 2000, the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council passed the Cherokee Independent Press Act, establishing an editorial board to oversee the tribe’s newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix and Indian Advocate, and prevent the local government from firing the newspaper’s reporters for writing accurate stories. The following year, the tribe passed a landmark Freedom of Information law, guaranteeing public access to the tribe’s financial records and government meetings.

However, the newspaper, like so many other American Indian publications, remains under the ownership of the tribal government.

“Of course we’d like to be independent, but right now that’s just not feasible,” says Dan Agent, editor of The Cherokee Phoenix and Indian Advocate. “Our primary goal is to communicate with our people, and this is the best way we know how to do that right now.”

The hope among many American Indian journalists is that the work of the Navajos and the Cherokees — the two largest tribes in the nation, with a combined population of nearly 1 million, according to the 2000 U.S. Census — will inspire other tribes to safeguard their publications against government intrusion. Independence, they say, is paramount to fulfilling their mission as the watchdogs of their communities.

“That’s the solution,” says McAuliffe, of the University of Montana. “But the question is, are these tribal councils going to let go of their newspapers?”