Free Press Resource Page
Join the fight for free press and information in Indian Country!
Tribal nations have the sovereignty to decide how they want to protect freedoms of press and information. More and more do, but the problem is that too many still do not.
The Native American Journalists Association has a dedicated Free Press Committee and many resources for members and others to use to make a difference. This resource page provides two major examples of tribes that decided to do just that – the Osage Nation and the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Through this committee, NAJA members developed the essential elements of an independent tribal media.
Each tribe has the sovereignty to do what is best for that specific tribe, but we have learned from hard-fought experience that these elements do the best job to preserve independence.
This page also has links available to access other useful member resources such as the NAJA Legal Hotline for Journalists and a legal resource room with a bibliography and links about free press and information in Indian Country. There is an FOI module for knowing the basics for accessing federal, state, and tribal records in and about Indian Country.
We need your support and involvement so we can spread the best ideas for how tribes protect freedoms of press and information. Join NAJA today!
Free Press Committee chair Shannon Shaw Duty (Osage) works as the editor of The Osage News, which has won numerous journalism awards, including the prestigious Elias Boudinot Free Press Award in 2014 for holding tribal leaders accountable under the Osage Open Records Act.
"Our hope for this free press page is to aid our NAJA tribal media outlets that struggle with bringing sunlight to their respective governments,” she said. "We know how hard our jobs are in bringing information to our communities. We hope the Free Press legislation examples provided by the Osage and Cherokee Nations can be utilized to support the free flow of news and information for our NAJA members."
One of the first tribes in the nation to pass free press and free information acts is the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, which continues to publish the very first American Indian newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix.
NAJA Free Press Committee member Bryan Pollard (Cherokee), as editor of The Phoenix, has learned that daily vigilance is necessary to keep free press and information for the Cherokee people. The Phoenix was the first paper to receive the Elias Boudinot Award.
"Tribal businesses continue to grow financially and tribal governments continue to grow in complexity as a result,” Pollard said. “It is now more important than ever that tribal citizens have the information necessary to understand these changes and how it effects their lives, their families and their communities. An active and unfettered independent press is vital to our cultural wellbeing during this time of rapid economic development.”
The Osage and Cherokee editors are part of a growing team of Native American journalists, attorneys, professors, and other interested citizens and professionals who fight to protect free press and information in Indian Country.
"It is our hope that as a community of native journalists, we can work together to enhance the voice of the tribal press in all our tribal nations,” Pollard said. “The resources on this page should serve as a catalyst to empower those seeking a path toward truthful reporting and government transparency."
As you can see from the linked files, legislation often is amended, which either strengthens of weakens the laws. Please share examples from other tribes as we want to archive best practices.
NAJA Free Press Committee members include Duty, Pollard, and Kevin Kemper (Choctaw/ Cherokee), and Benny Polacca (Hopi/Pima/Havasupai/Tohono O'odham).
If you are a NAJA member and have a question or need that requires the advice of an attorney, contact the NAJA Legal Hotline for Journalists or 405-872-6107. Media and intellectual property attorneys across the United States with knowledge about Indian Country provide legal advice and representation for members, under certain conditions.
11 essential elements of an independent tribal media
An independent tribal media is an essential part of a thriving, transparent, representative tribal government. As tribal governments grow in complexity and prosperity, it becomes more important that tribal media grow in frequency and reach in order for tribal citizens to understand how these rapid changes may affect their families and communities. In order for tribal media to develop, tribal governments must foster an environment conducive to institutional growth, policy development, journalistic competency and excellence, and editorial freedom and independence from undue governmental influence.
The Native American Journalists Association has developed a list of essential elements needed in order to foster a truly independent tribal media. These elements should be applied within the tribal constitution to ensure a permanent effect. If this is not feasible then as many elements as possible should be enacted into tribal law. Implementation of any of these elements as a matter of policy should be avoided in order to resist potential institutional turmoil with a changing tribal administration.
1. Explicit declaration of protected free speech and freedom of the press
Specific language protecting the citizens right to free speech and a free press should be in the tribal constitution. If absent, then free press advocates should endeavor to amend the constitution for its inclusion. The lack of these constitutionally protected rights could undermine any law or policy established for the same purpose. Any law or policy establishing an independent press should include specific language expressing a commitment to the protection of the rights of free speech and a free press.
2. Establishment of an independent media
A tribal government seeking to establish a truly independent media should, ideally, do so within its constitution. Among the many constitutional articles that distribute powers to tribal institutions, an independent press should be included. A constitutionally created body with the duty to ethically report on the activities of tribal government would have the power to withstand most political turmoil. If this is not possible, then a legislative act incorporating many, if not all, of the prescribed elements should serve to adequately empower an independent tribal media free of undue political influence. An act should incorporate specific language that guarantees protection of free speech and a free press, independence from undue political influence, an independent governing body, a commitment to the ethics of journalism, a professional journalist as a tenured chief executive, and a duty to publish without prior restraint of fear of reprisal.
3. Establishment of an independent editorial board
Any act establishing an independent media should include an independent governing body with sufficient powers to set and enforce editorial and personnel policies. This editorial board will, in effect, be the publisher for the organization, and will hold final accountability for any activities under the auspices of the organization. This board should consist of tribal citizens who have a professional background in the operational management of a publication or other news organization. The language forming the board should specify how members are appointed, the terms of the appointment, and that each member shall serve their term free of undue political influence. The board should also have specific and exclusive powers to hire and terminate the chief executive, to ensure sound operational management, to hold public meetings, and to approve organizational policies.
4. Establishment of a tenured executive
In independent media organization must have a chief executive who is able to develop and implement organizational policies and business plans without fear of reprisal. In order to ensure an independent executive, any legislation enacting a free press must including specific provisions to protect the chief executive from undue political influence, such as removal only for cause. There should also be a formal process for removal in place should that become necessary. In addition to protections, there should also be specific requirements that an executive adhere to prescribed journalistic ethics and have an acceptable level of professional experience in the operational management of a publication or other news organization.
5. Explicit declaration of an “open public forum”
It should be explicitly stated in law and policy that it is the intent of the tribal government and tribal media to provide an “open public forum” for its citizens. This declaration establishes a commitment to the tradition and practice of free speech and the basic rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. Any attempted restriction on content published in an open forum is likely to be struck down by tribal or federal courts unless the restriction is shown to further a compelling governmental interest.
6. Freedom of Information
The public right to information about the policymaking processes and authority of the government should be established in law. A “Freedom of Information Act” should include sections defining the scope and limitations of public reporting for public bodies, public records, and the processes and outcomes of public meetings. Public access to government bodies, documents and meetings is a foundational part of a viable democracy and essential to thorough and accurate reporting by the tribal media.
7. “Shield” Act
Legislation should be enacted to provide statutory protection for the sources journalists or tribal media uses in reporting. It should include specific language exempting a journalist from disclosing a source of any published or unpublished information in any tribal proceeding. Shield language is another important foundational element of an independent tribal media because tribal journalists must be able to provide their sources with a reasonable assurance that their identity will be protected.
Any legislation enacting an independent tribal media should include provisions for and protection of tribal funding. Tribal news organizations often do not have the audience volume necessary to fund the organization through tradition revenues, such as subscriptions and advertising. In these instances it is necessary that the tribe subsidize the operational budget of the organization without using this financial power to influence policy or editorial content. Specific language should be included that establish reasonable thresholds and guidelines that control when funding may be reduced by the legislative body. Some tribes are large enough to have independent funding, but the vast majority of tribal media need tribal money.
It is important to design a media brand that is separate and distinct from the brand of the tribal government. It should include a name and logo that incorporates language and imagery universally recognized by the people that symbolizes the unique position and responsibility held by tribal media as a conduit of information between the people and the government.
In addition to distinct branding, an independent tribal media should operate in a building or facility that is separate from the other branches of tribal government. Although this distinction may not have a real effect on operations or content, the symbolic significance of this separation will be noticed by tribal citizens and will act toward building a reputation of independence from the government.
11. Cultural match
We recognize that each tribe has a unique culture and the sovereignty to choose how it protects freedom of the press and related freedoms. Scholars have noted how the most successful tribal law is a “cultural match” for that tribe. We encourage each tribe to do what works for that tribe as long as the basics of independent tribal media are protected and encouraged.
The primary author of this information is Bryan Pollard (Cherokee), editor of The Cherokee Phoenix, the first and longest-running American Indian newspaper. He also serves on the Free Press Committee for the Native American Journalists Association.