Sovereignty ... and free press

Joseph Martin

Eastern Cherokee Council reverses ban and non-tribal journalists are allowed back in chambers

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Tribal Council moved to reverse its ban on non-tribal media Feb. 5 ending its practice of excluding all media other than the tribally-owned and operated Cherokee One Feather from the council chambers during what are otherwise public sessions.

The ban was enacted through a move of the council in an April 2018 session, spurred by assertions of Council Representative Tommye Saunooke that a reporter for the Smoky Mountain News, a weekly publication based in Waynesville, N.C., had misquoted her. The Smoky Mountain News has continued to stand by the accuracy of the reporter’s article.

The tribe has laws addressing press freedom, open meetings and access to information in its code of ordinances, but enforcement can often be lacking, and there are little to no consequences for violations.

Smoky Mountain News publisher Scott McLeod presented council with letters from several news outlets, among them the Charlotte Observer, Raleigh News & Observer and Blue Ridge Public Radio.

“As members of the media, we also carry the weight of responsibility,” McLeod said. “That responsibility is to our readers, who include the people of the Qualla Boundary (also known as the Cherokee Indian Reservation), the same people who vote, live and work in this community. They have the right, and they need to know what their government is doing, what it’s not doing and why.”

McLeod said that keeping media out of the chambers denies them the chance for one-on-one interactions and getting the on-ground experience of events.

Saunooke, who couldn’t be reached for comment, claimed at the time that the Smoky Mountain News was “misquoting us” and asked that the paper’s reporter be asked to leave the chambers.

Saunooke made a move, adopted nearly unanimously by the tribal council, to only allow Cherokee media in the chambers. Saunooke repeated her assertions at the meeting to reverse the ban. After the ban was enacted, Smoky Mountain News’ reporters would cover council meetings by watching live video in the Council House lobby.

The Cherokee One Feather, which is owned and funded by the tribe, also supported reversing the ban.

Editor Robert Jumper called for expanding transparency in addition to strengthening the tribe’s free press laws.

“There was discussion of revising the Free Press Act in Chapter 75 (of the code), bringing more transparency through clear media and free speech rights to include all media," he wrote in a column. "While this is a huge step in the right direction, equal attention needs to be given to the antiquated processes for the release of public documents and a lack of a structured public information officer system. In some cases, decision-makers simply don’t acknowledge receipt of a request as a reason for not providing requested documents. The press and citizenry should not be kept in the dark, passed over, or delayed because of structural deficiencies and outdated policies. An informed citizenry is an essential part of representative government.”

The media ban also impacted tribal members who write or work for non-tribal publications.

Travis Long, a photojournalist for the News & Observer, of Raleigh, one of the publications to sign letters asking the council to reverse the ban, is one of those tribal members. He also signed one of the letters.

Travis Long
Photojournalist Travis Long, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, photographs on Grandfather Mountain near Linville, N.C. Jan. 22, 2020 (Photo courtesy of the News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.)

Long says that free press is a part of good democratic governance. “I respect the tribe’s sovereignty, and I understand that they have the right to keep members of the press out of the tribal council. I don’t feel that it’s in the best interest of both the tribe and the general public at large.”

As for being excluded as a tribal member working for non-tribal media, Long said, “It’s touchy. The One Feather is, in essence, an entity of the tribe. Generally, we don’t trust state-run media.”

He said there are Native journalists writing about issues that impact Natives. “By all means, they should not be excluded.”

Long also stressed the importance of a reporter’s need to be in the chambers as opposed to simply watching it on TV. He compared it to a sportswriter having to cover a game by only watching it on a screen. “I understand the importance of being in the room when policy is made.”

Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha called for expanding press protection. He said there are tribal members who working for non-tribal media. “The code only refers to our media. I believe in the constitution," he said. "I also believe in our sovereignty. I don’t want to take away information from the tribal members.”

Wachacha said he supported the idea of reporters being in the chambers. “You get the best information from the people who are on the ground.”

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Joseph Martin is a former editor of the Cherokee One Feather in Cherokee, North Carolina, and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. 

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