‘It’s a very fragile system’: a tense fight for free press at an Indigenous paper

In the propulsive documentary Bad Press, a news outlet affiliated with the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma is threatened by tribal government control

On 8 November 2018, the employees of Mvskoke Media, the tribal-affiliated news outlet for the Muscogee (also Mvskoke) Creek Nation in Oklahoma, arrived at work to news that free press on their reservation was in immediate jeopardy. The speaker of the national council, whom the outlet had just investigated for sexual misconduct, introduced an emergency measure to the tribe’s autonomous governing body to repeal its landmark free press bill, thus bringing oversight of the reservation’s only media outlet in house. The staff of Mvskoke Media, being good journalists, immediately started documenting their concerns, as captured in the breakout Sundance documentary Bad Press.

The film, directed by Rebecca Landsberry-Baker (Muscogee Creek) and Joe Peeler, quickly explains that, although the US constitution guarantees the right to a free press, Indigenous nations’ hard-won rights to sovereignty allow them to craft their own laws and constitutions. And in part because of decades of racist stereotypes, derision and cruelty – the Muscogee Creek were forcibly moved to their seat in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, on the trail of tears in the 1830s – many tribal governments are wary of perceived negative coverage. Only five out of 574 federally recognized Native American tribes – less than 1% – have a law guaranteeing a free press, and the pressure to maintain rosy coverage of the government, which controls their budgets, is intense.

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