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Oklahoma News Organizations Selected To Receive Legal Support From National Group

Oklahoma is one of five states selected by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to receive pro bono legal support to assist news organizations in pursuing public records and access to public meetings and in defending against legal actions.

The Reporters Committee announced Tuesday that it had chosen Oklahoma, Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee as the initial sites of its Local Legal Initiative, which is being funded primarily through a $10 million investment by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of its pledge to double its commitment to strengthening local journalism. The program will expand to other states, and additional funding will be sought.

The Reporters Committee, based in Washington, D.C., will hire an attorney in each state to work with participating news organizations to bolster their efforts to obtain public records, gain access to hearings and meetings, and defend against legal threats and lawsuits. Each lawyer will also offer pre-publication reviews of content, which is common in journalism for assessing legal exposure, as well as other services.

“We are eager to expand our legal services to help more local journalists pursue stories that inform and strengthen their communities,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee. “We are looking forward to working closely with our partners in each of these states to support thriving local journalism.”

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News outlets in Oklahoma involved in the program include Oklahoma Press Association, which has 175 newspaper members statewide; Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, which has 152 member radio stations and 29 television stations; the Native American Journalists Association, which serves Indigenous journalists and promotes more informed coverage of tribal communities; nonprofit investigative news organizations Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier; StateImpact Oklahoma, a reporting team sponsored by KGOU and other public radio stations; Freedom of Information Oklahoma, which promotes open and transparent government, and the Oklahoma chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“Media companies and the Citizens of Oklahoma very much appreciate the Knight Foundation’s transformative commitment to the enforcement of Oklahoma laws which provide for transparency in our governance. This investment will allow all media companies to accurately report on the issues that affect us all and do so with the ability to enforce the laws that protect Open Government,” said Vance Harrison, President of the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters.

“The Local legal Initiative is revolutionary because it will help restore the rights of citizens who want access to records kept by their government, and provide the financial backing to challenge bureaucracy and violations of Oklahoma’s transparency laws and principles,” said Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association.

“It is also right to commend the public servants, past and present, who have tirelessly supported transparency at all levels of government. For those who do not, the Local Legal Initiative will be a ‘Shot Heard ‘Round Oklahoma’ and help Oklahoma become one of the most transparent states in the nation.”

NAJA President Tristan Ahtone said, “We believe the opportunity will encourage both mainstream and tribal media to attain the highest standards of professionalism and improve coverage of Indigenous communities.”

The five launch states were selected from more than 45 submissions that the Reporters Committee received last year from more than 30 states, regions and territories nationwide.

“The enthusiasm and responses we received from across the country make clear that there is a significant need for pro bono legal assistance for local journalists nationwide,” said Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee. “At a time when important local reporting is routinely stymied, we stand ready to help journalists and news organizations overcome the legal roadblocks they too often face.”

Copyright 2020 KGOU