TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - Freedom of the press is taken for granted by most U.S. citizens, but that right is not necessarily extended to Indian country.
The subject wasn't even addressed until the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968. Many tribal newspapers, dependent upon tribal leaders and councils for funding, often find themselves in the dilemma of printing the truth or the tribal administration version of the truth.
In many instances, employees of tribally controlled newspapers can be and are fired for coverage the tribe or tribal leaders may consider negative. To address this issue, the Cherokee Nation recently passed a Free and Independent Press Act, which guarantees the tribal newspaper will not be subject to political influence in its coverage of tribal affairs. It will permit The Cherokee Advocate to be an open forum for the public and prevent it from being controlled by political interests.
The Cherokee Tribal Council has been working on the issue for several months, but held up voting on the measure until a decision could be made on requirements of the future editor and board members.
The council questioned how the board would be selected. Some feared having only the tribal council or Smith select the entire board could undermine intent of the new law. The original proposal had the chief select all the board members.
As passed, the act requires the council to select one board member; the chief to select the second with a third board member selected by two initial board members and confirmed by the chief and the council.
A 1997 tribal dispute over political control of the tribal newspaper caused concern about how much "free press" actually was available to readers of the newspaper.
Smith, elected in 1999, began an open door policy in the Cherokee tribal government and used the concept of the Free and Independent Press Act as a part of his campaign platform.
In the past, the Cherokee Advocate was the media relations department for the tribe. Since Smith's election, a separate office has been set up and a communications coordinator is available for information about the Cherokee Nation.
Dan Agent, editor of the Cherokee Advocate, is in a process of transition, turning the newspaper/media office back into a newspaper. Agent said the Advocate is mailed to more than 93,000 Cherokee households four times a year.
Although the paper is funded through the tribe, it takes advertising and plans on to its current subscribers. Agent said he would like to see the paper become financially independent as well, but knows that will take time.
For now his concern is to get the true facts about what is going on in the government of the Cherokee Nation to tribal members so they can make informed decisions regarding the nation's future.
The new legislation will allow those 93,000 homes to receive news that has not been examined or edited by the chief or tribal council. Readers also will see a new format and graphics in the Advocate.
Cherokee journalism has seen much in the years since the first Cherokee newspaper was printed in New Echota, Ga., in 1828, but the new legislation guarantees the Cherokee will continue the proud tradition begun so many years ago.
Smith has also made himself and Cherokee employees available to the press. He doesn't want the tribal newspaper to be afraid to write critical reports regarding his leadership.
"If I'm doing something wrong, the Cherokee people need to be able to read about it in the Advocate," Smith said.