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Cherokee strengthens free press law

Free press law in Cherokee got a little more free following Tribal Council’s passage of amendments to the tribe’s Free Press Act Sept. 6, but there’s still work to do, said Cherokee One Feather Editor Robert Jumper. 

“We would like to see the Free Press Act more open to the point where it’s not the One Feather only, because that’s the way it reads and it looks in the code,” Jumper said. “We continue to press for open press — not just One Feather press but open press.”

However, Jumper said, the amendments passed last week will go a long way toward giving The One Feather the legal protections it needs to insulate itself from political manipulation and provide tribal members with unbiased news about what’s happening in tribal government and society. He’s been with the paper for six years now and said he’s been working toward these changes throughout that time. 

“We have been very fortunate over the past couple of years in that the Tribal Council and the executive office have taken a very hands-off approach to The One Feather,” Jumper said. “They are for the most part a fan of free press. They do understand the importance of having kind of an arbitrary, non-partisan voice for the people. The issue is that we at The One Feather don’t feel like that’s truly free press, because it’s only at the discretion of those people who are in office at the time.”

 

Updates to the law

Tribal Council unanimously approved amendments to four sections of the Free Press Act last week, with the law awaiting ratification from Principal Chief Richard Sneed. Sneed said he plans to sign it.

Two of the changes aimed to remove ambiguous language that provided too much legal wiggle room for interference in the paper’s reporting. A requirement that “all news articles, editorials or other matters dealing with controversial subjects shall be submitted to the editorial board for consideration and approval prior to publication” was removed, since, Jumper pointed out, the word “controversial” could be construed to mean basically anything. 

In addition, the word “undue” was removed from a section stating that the paper should be “independent of any undue influence,” as “undue” is a subjective measure. A new sentence was added stating that “any incident of political pressure or influence that threatens a staff member of the Cherokee One Feather” should be turned over to the tribe’s Office of Internal Audit and Ethics. 

The amendments also included a new section of code, stating that The One Feather has the ability to use anonymous sources and does not have to disclose the identity of those sources to the government. 

“We basically have protections now under the law for people who want to come to us who are afraid of retribution on their jobs, or any kind of retribution,” Jumper said. 

Finally, Tribal Council approved drastic changes to the newspaper’s editorial board. 

The Cherokee One Feather is funded by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians government, and its employees are tribal employees. That setup has birthed obstacles in the paper’s quest to provide unbiased, independent news to tribal members. The editorial board is intended to provide a barrier between newspaper employees and politicians. The board is responsible for establishing guidelines and policies for newspaper content, advertising and events and for ensuring that the paper maintains a sound operational structure. 

However, under current law the editorial board is composed only of One Feather employees and the tribe’s director of marketing and public relations, which is the position that oversees The One Feather — or it did, when the position existed. It was eliminated during the later part of the Michell Hicks administration, but the law wasn’t updated to reflect that change. Instead, multiple other tribal employees sat on the board in place of that one person. 

“When I came on board the explanation I got was the duties of that one position were distributed among two or three people, so those two or three people also got to sit on the editorial board,” Jumper said. “Well, after an administration change we made the case that, hey, that’s not right. The position doesn’t exist so if that particular position’s not there, there shouldn’t be a person who sits on the board just because they have some duties that relate back to that position.”

Since 2015, then, the editorial board has been composed solely of One Feather employees. 

Under the amended law, those employees would be joined by three appointed positions. The Tribal Council would appoint one position, the principal and vice chiefs would jointly appoint one position and the attorney general would designate a staff member from his office to fill the third position. 

There would be no term limits for editorial board members. There would also be no requirement that appointed board members have any particular educational or professional qualifications. The Native American Journalists Association strongly recommends that editorial boards be made up solely of tribal citizens with professional qualifications related to journalism and operational management of news organizations as a way to ensure an independent tribal media. NAJA also recommends that editorial boards should have the power to hire and fire the newspaper’s chief executive, which is not the case under EBCI law. 

Jumper said that, while he believes qualification requirements would be a good thing, the editorial board’s main concern was writing an ordinance that would improve the paper’s independence but also meet approval from Tribal Council. 

“We were much more concerned that we get some community voices and additional community support for The One Feather, so we decided not to go the route of trying to make qualifications and trying to make it a more inclusive board for the community,” said Jumper. 

 

Response from Council 

While councilmembers approved the other sections without changes, they made some changes to Jumper’s proposed language for the editorial board.

Under the proposed language, The One Feather would give recommendations for the appointed seats before they were filled, but Vice Chair David Wolfe, of Yellowhill, took issue with that stipulation. 

“I look at a Tribal Council appointment as Tribal Council’s appointment without any ‘undue influence’ from the current board or whoever. I move to strike ‘The One Feather will provide recommendations for the appointed seats,’” said Wolfe. “We can advertise that and get resumes. We’ll do that appointment on our own.”

“The only reason we stuck that in there is if you needed any assistance from us we would provide it, but if you don’t need it we won’t provide it,” said Jumper.

Tribal Council voted unanimously to strike the sentence allowing The One Feather to recommend board members. 

There was also some discussion about the pros and cons of unlimited terms. Council ultimately struck language that said editorial board members should serve “indefinitely,” but the action didn’t have any substantial effect on the law’s outcome, as members will be allowed to stay on the board until they resign or are removed for cause. 

“If you guys appoint one (member) and they stay on there for eight, 12 years, it would lessen the chances of anybody having political influence over that person,” Scott McKie Brings Plenty, a longtime reporter for The One Feather, explained to Tribal Council. 

While The One Feather left council chambers with a unanimous vote in favor of the amendments, its employees were also cautioned to be factually correct and unbiased in their reporting. 

“There’s some stuff that’s written, and you know that already, on different outlets or social networks or whatever that’s so far off base,” said Councilmember Perry Shell, of Big Cove. “That’s my concern, that whatever actually goes into what’s written is a fact and not an accusation.”

 

Protections for outside media

In a follow-up interview, Jumper said the reception in council was “really super positive” but that there is still work to do to get Cherokee’s free press law up to snuff. 

In its current form, the law always refers to The One Feather specifically, with any free press protections applying to that outlet only. It’s not a universal free press law that protects all media outlets equally. 

While Jumper is happy to see improved protections for his newspaper, he said that expanding the free press law will benefit The One Feather, the government and tribal members. 

“There’s always a danger in having one outlet be able to present the news,” he said. “Whether it’s real or not, even if it’s just a perception, it can cause really negative things to happen when people feel like there’s a control, whether the government’s controlling it or whether one news agency has cart blanche over what’s presented. There’s always that perception of manipulation. We love having other voices out there. That’s what news is all about.”

Since April 5, The One Feather has by official degree been the only news outlet allowed in council chambers. The media ban was instituted following a move by Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown, who during the Budget Council meeting two days earlier had stated, “The Smoky Mountain News is not quoting us right” and that she was planning to ask council to have the paper’s reporter “step out.” However, video of the supposedly wrongfully quoted statement shows that the version printed in The Smoky Mountain News was correct. 

Nevertheless, during the April 5 meeting Saunooke moved that all press other than The One Feather be banned from council chambers, with Councilmember Lisa Taylor, of Painttown, the only one of the 12 councilmembers to vote in opposition. All council meetings are livestreamed online, so other media outlets can still view the proceedings. They’re just not allowed in the room. 

In May, Jumper introduced a resolution on behalf of The One Feather Editorial Board to rescind the ban but withdrew it when Principal Chief Richard Sneed suggested that councilmembers and various media outlets meet first to discuss their issues face-to-face. Such a meeting was scheduled but later postponed and never rescheduled. 

Jumper said that The One Feather still wants to see the ban reversed. 

“We’re really confused at why this thing exists, and we really want to try to help put things back in order,” he said. “We really don’t feel like it’s good or beneficial to the government or to the media, so we’re really kind of hoping that we can communicate that in a way that’s not offensive to the council and say, ‘Hey, can we just do away with this and not make a big deal out of it?’” 

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