In the Muscogee Nation primary election Sept. 18, citizens will vote on a ballot question that, if passed, would amend the nation’s constitution to provide permanent press protections for Mvskoke Media, the tribe’s independent media outlet.
Additionally, the amendment would require the Muscogee Nation to fund Mvskoke Media’s day-to-day operations, covering essential staff and news production costs. For the amendment to be fully ratified into the Muscogee Nation Constitution, the ballot question must pass by a two-thirds majority vote of eligible citizens who participate in the Sept. 18 election.
Absentee ballots have already been distributed and are being returned, and early in-person voting will be held Sept. 15 and 16 at various precincts across the Muscogee Reservation, which the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in July 2020.
More information about the Sept. 18 election can be found at the Muscogee Nation Election Board web page.
‘The last bastion of oversight and watchdogs’
Mvskoke Media operates a print newspaper called the Mvskoke News that can be mailed free of charge to all tribal citizens. News articles are posted on MvskokeMedia.com, which also contains content from Mvskoke Radio.
Mvskoke Media fear that, if this year’s ballot question is not passed, the Muscogee National Council may eventually revoke the outlet’s existing press protections, as the legislative body did in November 2018.
On Nov. 8, 2018, the Muscogee National Council voted 7-6 during an emergency meeting to eliminate the tribe’s Free Press Act that had been established in 2015. The Council placed Mvskoke Media under the executive branch’s Department of Commerce, a decision that drew criticism from within the tribe and the broader sphere of professional journalism.
In July 2020, dialogue on the topic resulted in Mvskoke Media’s press freedoms being restored by the Muscogee National Council in a 15-0 vote. Rep. Mark Randolph proposed the restorative legislation.
Now, the Sept. 18 ballot question offers an opportunity to place those press freedoms into the Muscogee Constitution, which would prevent a future Council from repeating the 2018 action.
“This is the last bastion of oversight and watchdogs,” said Angel Ellis, director of Mvskoke Media. “If the people don’t come up and vote, we don’t know what is going to happen. We’re definitely doing the hail-mary pass.”
On May 22, 2021, the Muscogee Nation Council voted 13-2 to put this year’s question on the ballot and leave it up to the Muscogee Nation people to choose whether to enshrine press protections in the constitution.
That proposal was also led by Randolph, even though Mvskoke Media once wrote a story about him being arrested for DUI. The story had been removed from the front page of their paper by the executive branch when it had editorial control, Ellis said.
Liz Gray, the managing editor of Mvskoke Media, praised Randolph for pushing legislation that protects the news outlet despite the previous coverage of his arrest.
“It really shows a lot on his character and who he is as a person in understanding that it’s not a personal matter, that it is a bigger issue,” Gray said.
‘Too much bad news’
One of the primary criticisms which the Muscogee National Council voiced during the repeal of the tribe’s Free Press Act in 2018 was that Mvskoke Media put out “too much bad news,” Ellis said.
Immediately after the revocation of the outlet’s press protections, Sterling Cosper — manager of Mvskoke Media at the time — resigned in protest and advocated for a reversal of the controversial decision.
During that period under the Department of Commerce, Mvskoke Media’s stories were edited by the executive branch before they were published, Ellis said. James Floyd, the principal chief of the Muscogee Nation at the time who signed the legislation, appointed Secretary of the Nation and Commerce Elijah McIntosh to direct the tribe’s news outlet.
“I have emails between me and the secretary of the nation where he did edits on my story,” Ellis said.
According to Ellis, edits from McIntosh included omissions from live radio broadcasts, pulling entire stories from the newspaper, removing videos from the outlet’s YouTube channel and omitting pertinent facts from print stories.
“I have those (emails), too,” said Liz Gray, managing editor of Mvskoke Media.
Gray said she was once forced to change a reported salary for a member of the Muscogee Nation, despite having verified the salary figure in question.
“Whenever I questioned him on the source [and asked for] the information to verify, I didn’t get anything. I just had to change it,” Gray said.
Hill administration ‘very hands off with us’
Ellis praised Principal Chief David Hill and his administration for their support of Mvskoke Media and the free press throughout his tenure in office, which began in January 2020. Ellis said the Hill administration has recognized the line between the government and its independently run media operation.
“They’ve been very hands off with us. They’ve included us to the point that we’re a government run operation,” Ellis said of Hill’s administration. “They want to keep us aware of the health and safety protocols. They want me to come to those (cabinet) meetings so that they can track and see who’s sick, who’s healthy, who’s safe, what problems I have, what we need to keep functioning — but they have never crossed the line on us under Chief Hill’s administration.”
Back in September 2019 — when Hill was serving as second speaker of the National Council — he voted in favor of placing a similar proposed ballot initiative in front of citizens. That initiative also would have amended the Muscogee Nation Constitution to provide press protections, but the 9-6 Council vote fell one vote shy of the required two-thirds majority threshold to create a ballot question.
Muscogee Nation Press Secretary Jason Salsman said that over the years, the Muscogee National Council realized that efforts to limit the independence of Mvskoke Media were politically problematic.
“I think [the Council] probably saw that that move wasn’t popular with the citizenry,” Salsman said. “I think they saw a reaction from the citizenry that said, ‘No, we as citizens want a free press, we want an unfiltered news outlet, that tells us exactly what we need to know. Not watered down, not sugar-coated, but straight from the source.'”
Salsman also said many on the Council would likely not speak out against the free-press ballot initiative during an election year, as the topic is popular with the citizenry.
“I think maybe if you put a truth serum out there, you know, some councilors would say, ‘Yeah, I really don’t agree with free press, but I can’t go against it, because it’s such a hot topic with our citizens.'”
At least one Muscogee National Council candidate, however, has expressed her opposition to the ballot question.
On her Facebook campaign page, Dierdra Thompson called the language of the question “misleading” and has called Mvskoke Media biased. She said the news outlet should not be given tribal money without tribal oversight.
“They want their budget to be a free for all! No oversight from funds that are the citizens!” Thompson wrote. “Who would want to pay them what ever they ask and if passed we will have to! No other [department] is allowed to do this!! If the paper was unbiased I would say yes! But as we’ve seen it is not!”
If the ballot question passes with two-thirds support Sept. 18, the Muscogee Nation will become the first tribe to add independent press protections to its constitution, Ellis said.
“We like making history around here,” Salsman said. “Especially good history.”
Article XIV – INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS
Section 1. The Muscogee Creek Nation shall have an Independent Press that shall be free from political interest or undue influence, harassment, censorship, control or restrictions from any department of the government of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in order to provide unbiased news and reports objectively to the Muscogee (Creek) citizens.
Section 2. For the purposes of this legislation, Independent Press is meant to include all editorial outlets: Television, Radio and Creative.
Section 3: Editorial Board. The Independent Press shall be governed by an Independent Editorial Board. The Editorial Board alone shall have the power to hire a Director. The Director shall oversee Mvskoke Media personnel, including hiring staff.
Section 4: Funding. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation shall fund day to day operations and publication of the Independent Press.
(Update: This article was updated at 7:20 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2021, to include reference to Thompson’s Facebook post.)