Cherokee Nation to consider free press statute

Monday, May 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith welcomed a proposal Monday that would give the tribal newspaper license to
print the truth -- "whether it be good, bad or ugly."

Lawmakers for the second-largest American Indian tribe, after discussion Monday night, tabled a vote on the act that would establish "a free and independent press," even though the newspaper would remain funded by the tribe.

The free press vote comes to a tribe whose long newspaper history has been marked by tangles between press and politics, even the murder of its first editor.

"We firmly believe that it will make our tribe a stronger organization," said Smith, who pushed for a free press when seeking election last year in the midst of a bitter tribal dispute.

The proposed act provides for a press that is free from "undue influence" and particular political interests. It creates an editorial board whose three members are barred from participating in tribal political activities.

Dan Agent, current editor of the quarterly Cherokee Advocate, said the act establishes an editorially independent newspaper,
something that he said wasn't in place when tribal fighting broke out in February 1997.

Agent said he was laid off as the tribe's public affairs director after the newspaper gave "very balanced" accounts of the dispute involving then-Chief Joe Byrd.

"It continued to publish but basically had nothing in there about Cherokee crisis," Agent said.

Indian tribes are obligated to provide press protections under the 1968 federal Indian Civil Rights Act, but tribes interpret that
requirement in different ways, said Sam Deloria, director of the American Indian Law Center in Albuquerque, N.M.

"Obviously, there are special problems created when it's the government that owns the newspaper," Deloria said.

Richard La Course, associate editor of the Yakama Nation Review in Toppenish, Wa., has spent years studying issues of free press in
tribal media.

Seventy of 548 federally recognized tribes have free press provisions, but the Cherokee Nation proposal is unique, he said. It provides a route for a hearing before the tribe's highest court before an editorial board member could be removed.

"This is the first time that the railroad is laid out after a potential train wreck," he said.

Reporters for tribal publications face the challenge of covering closeknit communities where they may have blood or political ties,
La Course said. Added pressure comes from tribal administrators who control the purse strings of tribal publications.

He said, for example, that the Cherokee editorial board created under the proposal leaves room for potential interference down the road. The proposal calls for three members appointed by the chief and confirmed by the tribal council to establish and enforce editorial policy. The members must have a degree in journalism or
related field.

"If the full letter of law is implemented, it shouldn't go awry," La Course said. "But in the real world, things do go awry."

Concerns over how editorial board members would be appointed and about the educational requirements led to the issue being tabled, probably until next month's meeting.

The Cherokees had the nation's first Indian newspaper. It was established in 1828 and was written in Cherokee and English, La Course said.

When the tribe split over whether to accept or fight removal from its lands in the South, the newspaper's editor sided with removal. Cherokee historians said he was killed by removal opponents after arrival in what is now Oklahoma.

In the tribe's latest fighting, tribal council member Mary Flute-Cooksey sided with Smith's opponent. But she favored the free
press provision Monday.

The mainstream media's coverage was one-sided against Byrd, she said. An independent tribal newspaper could have provided more
balanced coverage.

"I think it should tell everything, not just the wonderful things that happen to make someone look good," she said. "I think it should tell the true story."

Smith said he has told Agent he doesn't want to see what is going into the newspaper and won't tell him what to write.

"If I'm not doing a good job, he should be reporting that to the people," the chief said.