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How Free Is the Native American Press? Unity '94 Panelists Discuss Censorship That Still Exists Today

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

How Free Is the Native American Press? Unity '94 Panelists Discuss Censorship That Still Exists Today

Article excerpt

THE FIRST NATIVE American newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix in New Echota, Ga., was launched February 1828 -- and destroyed by Georgian troops about seven years later.

Unfortunately, the Phoenix's suppression may still say more about the state of Native American journalism than its hopeful beginning, says Gary Fife, news anchor for the Heartbeat Alaska radio network.

"Since that day to this day hence, there has not been freedom of the press in Indian Country. I just haven't seen it," Fife declared at the Native American Journalists Association's "town hall" meeting at the recent Unity '94.

Native American papers, Fife and other journalists said, operate under tremendous pressures. Often published in isolated reservations, they have few financial resources. In addition, they face intense social and political pressures from tribal councils and leaders.

Too often, Fife said, the newspapers or broadcast outlets buckle under to those pressures.

"In all my experience in broadcasting so far, the weakest link has been the tribal outlets," Fife said.

"There can't be the 'real' press and then ... the Native press," he added. "The one thing I've always fought for is we have to do the tough story. For change to come we have to bring daylight to these situations."

Indeed, there were indications even at the meeting itself of the pressure on American Indian journalists.

For instance, one Indian leader, JoAnn Jones, chairwoman of the Wisconsin Winnebago Nation, reflected the views of several audience members as well when she spoke quite plainly for "censorship" of the Native press.

"We believe, of course, in freedom of the press," she said, "but I have stated publicly that we have to have this censorship ... in certain stories that involve confidentiality."

Jones complained that Native papers themselves sometimes practice biased journalism.

In her campaign for chairwoman, she said, "We had to fight our own paper."

She also said that her council's experiment with giving greater access to the tribal press was a failure, because the paper published "confidential" material such as finances.

Similarly, the chairman of the Oneida tribe, Jerry Hill, said closed meetings are a leader's "privilege."

"Generally the kind of rule that I have is that that which should be known will be known," he said. …

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