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Resolution to reverse Cherokee media ban withdrawn

A recent vote of the Cherokee Tribal Council prohibited non-Cherokee media outlets from sitting in the Council chambers, but The Cherokee One Feather is hoping to reverse the ban. File photo A recent vote of the Cherokee Tribal Council prohibited non-Cherokee media outlets from sitting in the Council chambers, but The Cherokee One Feather is hoping to reverse the ban. File photo

A resolution seeking to reverse a ban on non-Cherokee media outlets — enacted by the Cherokee Tribal Council Thursday, April 5 — was withdrawn from the agenda when Council convened for its May 3 meeting. 

The resolution, submitted by the tribe’s newspaper The Cherokee One Feather, stated that “many ethical, hard-working journalists are being adversely affected by this motion with no due cause” and that the Tribal Council should “hereby rescind the previous motion barring all media outlets, with the exception of the Cherokee One Feather, from the Tribal Council House.”

“Our position on press access to the Chambers has not changed,” reads a statement from Cherokee One Feather Editor Robert Jumper and the paper’s editorial board, posted when the May 5 meeting adjourned. “After discussion with Chief (Richard) Sneed, we see an opportunity to have meaningful discussion regarding not only the outside media ban from Chambers, but other free press issues in a less formal forum with fellow media outlets so open communication may occur and meaningful change may be accomplished.”

Later that week, Sneed sent out an invitation to The Smoky Mountain News, The Cherokee One Feather and various tribal officials for a meeting to take place at 3 p.m. Thursday, May 10. The meeting was later postponed, but according to the initial invitation, it was intended to “bring interested parties together to discuss media access, physically, and with regard to public hearings and information; and to communicate governmental concerns of accuracy in reporting with possible solutions or next steps.”


The background 

The discussion stems from an April 5 move by Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown, in which she asked that “the only press allowed in our Cherokee chambers will be Cherokee press.”

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No discussion followed the move, but Tribal Council members proceeded to vote 11-1 to support it. Councilmember Lisa Taylor, also of Painttown, was the sole dissenting vote. 

While Saunooke did not give a reason for her move during the April 5 meeting, a statement she made during Tribal Council’s April 3 Budget Council meeting does illuminate the issue. 

 “I know there’s freedom of the press and freedom of speech and all that,” Saunooke said, “but Tribal Council, I’m going to ask you to ask (Smoky Mountain News reporter) Holly (Kays) not to enter these chambers, because she called me the other day and said, ‘Can I quote you?’ and I said ‘No, don’t make me look ignorant.’ She had a different quote from what I had said, but she did anyway. There’s an example of what she did. The Smoky Mountain News is not quoting us right, so I’m gonna ask Tribal Council if you’ll ask her to step out. That’d be my suggestion.”

According to a story on the ban written by SMN’s Cory Vaillancourt and published in the paper’s April 11 issue, “Emails to and from Saunooke provided by Kays show Kays wasn’t asking for Saunooke’s permission to use the quote, which is a matter of public record, even in Cherokee. Indeed, no such permission is ever necessary ... Tribal Council meetings are recorded on video and available online for all to see and hear (, and Saunooke’s statement that day is precisely as reported by Kays.”

Following the ban, The Cherokee One Feather has been outspoken in its support of a reversal and concerns regarding the implications for free press on the Qualla Boundary. 

“We think this action sends a message that should be concerning to anyone interested in a free press,” the paper’s editorial board wrote in an April 9 editorial. “While the Cherokee One Feather strives to provide unbiased news free of political influence, we will forever be perceived as being swayed by the government because we are a tribal program … we push ever forward to secure protections under the law that will provide the community a truly free press, but, in the meantime, outside media provide the valuable service of assisting the One Feather in the documentation of tribal history.”


A need for stronger press protections 

The issue has spurred statewide interest. A National Public Radio program based in Chapel Hill — The State of Things — invited SMN, The One Feather and Principal Chief Richard Sneed to discuss the ban on an April 27 show. Saunooke was also invited to participate but did not respond, the show’s host Frank Stasio said on air. 

In his public comments, Sneed has not clearly stated whether he approves or disapproves of the ban, saying on the NPR segment that while he’s “not in favor of anything to suppress free speech or the press,” it is “Tribal Council’s prerogative who they allow in the Chambers.” He has also pointed out that preventing outside media from sitting in the chambers doesn’t necessarily prevent them from reporting on Council actions, as all sessions are videotaped, livestreamed and archived online. The ban affects only media’s ability to sit in the chambers where meetings take place — members of outside media outlets are still allowed to sit in the council house lobby, which features free wifi and a big screen TV broadcasting the meeting.

However, Jumper said in the same NPR segment, there are some details a reporter won’t be able to capture if not permitted in the meeting room, and the exclusion itself sends a strong message. 

“Personally, I think it can be very potentially chilling for media of any type, whether it was the One Feather or any other organization, to be told ‘no, you can’t be here’ while we’re making those decisions,” Jumper said. “It certainly has a chilling effect on a journalist.”

In an interview, Sneed said that he does see a need for stronger laws protecting The One Feather’s independence.

“We can create an ordinance that basically sets the paper out as a standalone with the editorial board as oversight and just simply writing an ordinance that says there can’t be interference from the executive branch or any elected official,” Sneed said. 

Current laws already contain many such provisions. One Feather employees are tribal employees, but they fall under the authority of an editorial board. The code stipulates that the editorial board “operate free from political influence” and that the editor and staff “will not be intimidated with their jobs by printing and providing honest weekly publications,” as “it is imperative to have measures in place to ensure the freedom of press and to ensure the tribal publications have the autonomy and independence to report honestly and objectively.”

However, as The One Feather has written in multiple editorials, those laws aren’t strong enough to truly ensure the paper’s independence in the face of an administration intent on infringing it. For instance, Section 75-2 of the code states that any pieces “dealing with controversial subjects shall be submitted to the editorial board for consideration and approval prior to publication,” and Section 75-3 provides that the paper be “independent from any undue influence and free of any particular political interest.”

“While, on the surface, this may look like clear and ethical law, words like ‘controversial’ and ‘undue’ muddy the waters to the point that Editorial Board members must wonder what will get them into jeopardy and what will not,” Jumper wrote in a May 7 editorial. 

The paper’s editorial board is composed of its staff, plus the tribe’s director of marketing and public relations, meaning that potentially controversial decisions about what will and will not run in the tribally owned newspaper are made by people who are themselves tribal employees and who will ultimately be the ones executing any decisions made.

While the tribe can’t control what outside media outlets write, it can control reporters’ access to information. Tribal law is hazy at best about the rights of non-Cherokee reporters to attend meetings and access documents. In addition to being asked to leave Council meetings on multiple occasions, The Smoky Mountain News has been denied numerous requests for information, such as meeting minutes from the Tribal Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, that would be easily accessible to anyone — regardless of citizenship status — in the counties surrounding the Qualla Boundary. 

When asked whether possible changes to free press law might include changing the composition of the editorial board, Sneed said that, “it’s certainly something we can look at if for no other reason than to take away any semblance of impropriety or a conflict of interest.” However, he added, during his administration significant changes have been made to laws protecting employees from retaliation and politically motivated firing. 

“The One Feather rarely runs up against political direction regarding the reporting of the news. The concern is that the community only gets that benefit because of the ethical behavior of our current leadership,” Jumper wrote in the May 7 piece. 

Because of that reality, he said, it’s essential to both strengthen the laws ensuring The One Feather’s independence and bolster the ability of outside media to cover tribal issues as well. 

“We feel that the more media covering Cherokee news, the better informed our community and readership will be. Each news outlet has its own editorial staff and journalists, with different views of what is relevant to cover,” Jumper wrote. “While overt biases should be avoided by media at all costs, every news organization will have a different perspective on news items based on their unique situations. And, that is a good thing.”

While The One Feather has withdrawn its resolution seeking to rescind the ban, the paper has stated publicly that it will continue pushing for the ban’s removal. 

“We withdrew the resolution in order to have time to work through the issues,” reads the paper’s May 3 Facebook post. “If needed, we will redraft legislation for the Council to consider for the upcoming Tribal Council sessions.”

The ban was created through a vote of Council — overturning it would also require a vote of Council, not just a sit-down discussion like the one planned for May 10. However, Sneed said, he believes having a face-to-face conversation before the matter comes before council for a vote will prove helpful. 

“I didn’t want it to continue to fester or turn into a big political storm,” he said.

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