Times an advocate for freedom of the press
By Candace Begody
June 27, 2013
So when attempts are made to tell us how to report a story, we take offense to that.
Recently, the attempt to control and manipulate our coverage occurred in the form of the Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation officials in the days leading up to the Nik Wallenda tightrope walk over the Little Colorado River Gorge on Sunday.
It came to my attention on June 21 that press privileges for our Navajo Times Western Agency reporter, Krista Allen had been revoked.
According to emails sent from a Discovery Channel representative to Allen, it was the decision of Geri Hongeva, media representative for the Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation, who said the Navajo Times' prior coverage of the tightrope walk was "too negative" therefore Krista would not be allowed to cover the event.
Allen responded, "I don't understand why the NNPR would admit foreign media crews and deny a reporter from their own tribe."
In a letter to Hongeva on June 21, I requested that she reconsider her decision as the Navajo Times reported on one important side that was being overlooked by mainstream media outlets – the opposition of many of the Diné people living in the area of the tightrope walk.
Hongeva's decision was based on Cameron Chapter President Milton Tso's reaction to a story in last week's Navajo Times, "Cameron residents to protest high-wire stunt," in which Tso is quoted as an opponent.
According to Hongeva, Tso approached Helen Webster (a park manager for Little Colorado River Navajo Tribal Park, which oversees the Little Colorado River Gorge), and warned her of the story and that what was quoted by the Times was made up because the "Times wanted to stir up trouble."
He began calling my reporter a "liar," also according to Hongeva, but even when my reporter said she had proof because their conversations were recorded, no one would hear it.
In the letter I addressed to Hongeva, I write, "The Navajo Times has not been a tribally controlled organ for quite some time. To penalize our reporter for what you perceived as a negative story by denying her access to an event on Navajo land harkens back to the era when the tribal officials tried to shut the newspaper down for printing articles it didn't like. We are past that."
Rumors flew like wildfire that the Navajo Times' press credentials were revoked and fueled the fire for already angry protesters. It also sparked the curiosity of the Associated Press and the Arizona Republic.
After giving the Times' side of the story to the Associated Press, I received messages from Hongeva requesting for a return phone call. When I returned her call, she said she didn't know what was going on and confirmed that she made the decision to withdraw my reporter's pass based on Tso's name-calling rant.
We spoke and after what I thought was a pleasant and professional conversation with Hongeva, I was convinced that nothing further would escalate as Allen's pass had been reinstated.
I was wrong.
On the day of the walk, media reps were shuttled from Flagstaff to the media site. But when my reporter attempted to board the media bus, Allen was not allowed, as her name was not on the media list.
Hongeva later told Allen that unless she agreed to write a "positive story," she would not be allowed a pass.
During my conversation with Hongeva, I agreed to have my reporter "get the other side of the story," which meant an interview with the proponents, whether Hongeva or anyone else dubbed it "positive" or not -we needed to get the other side.
My words, however, were twisted into an agreement that my reporter would be allowed to attend the event, with the rest of the media, only if a "positive story" is written.
In our defense, when the Navajo Times first got wind of Wallenda's "dream" to walk across the LCR gorge, I, myself, sought out Martin L. Begaye, Parks & Recreation manager and Wallenda's crew. But we were denied information.
Granted, the tribal Parks & Recreation staff signed confidentiality agreements with Discovery officials.
Perhaps in the future, we can all learn something from Navajo Nation Museum Director Manuelito Wheeler and those at Lucasfilm, Ltd. in the case of the Navajo dubbing of the 'Star Wars' film.
Media Information, within reason, was granted from the get-go because museum officials knew there would be disagreement and opponents of this project. There was transparency, again within reason, throughout this process.
This begs the question: if officials had a problem with the Wallenda articles that were published in the Navajo Times, why didn't anyone reach out to the Times?
During the conversation between Hongeva and I, she asked a question (which might suggest special favor had there been more newsroom editors in the room): can you send a different reporter to cover the event?
I politely said sources do not select their reporters. My primary reason for assigning Allen to the tightrope walk was because Allen had been covering this story from day one.
But to further back up my decision, and perhaps is the stronger reason, is the potential for the message it would send had I given my blessing and sent another reporter.
It would send the message that Navajo tribal officials can censor the newspaper and that is not true, nor right.
When I accepted this position, I did so with great humility and respect for those who paved the way so that a young female editor could one day take the reigns of the largest Native American owned and operated newspaper in the world – and I do not take that lightly.
My former editor, Duane Beyal, once said, "No tribal agency has any business trying to manipulate our coverage."
Why? Because the Navajo Times is the newspaper of the Navajo people and our job is to ensure that the Navajo people and all of our readers have a voice, and access to a free press.