The trial of a Des Moines Register reporter who was arrested for covering racial justice protests last summer is set to begin next week in what experts say is a rare prosecution of a journalist on assignment in the States -United.
Andrea Sahouri faces charges of non-dispersal and interference in official acts and is expected to stand trial from March 8.
While at least 126 journalists were arrested or detained in 2020, only 14 remain facing charges, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker. Group editor Kirstin McCudden called it “surprising and unknown” why Sahouri’s accusations remain.
Several media and journalism groups have called for the charges to be dropped, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Students and staff at Columbia University School of Journalism, where Sahouri earned a master’s degree. The human rights organization Amnesty International has also taken up the cause.
“The fact that this trial is taking place is a violation of free press rights and a miscarriage of justice,” the editorial board of the Des Moines Register wrote in a recent editorial.
Carol Hunter, editor of the newspaper, told USA TODAY that the newspaper is helping Sahouri fight the charges because they “see it as a fundamental principle … that a journalist has a right to be on a demonstration scene to be able to observe what is happening and to report. “
NOTICE:Trial of Des Moines journalist arrested while covering protest violates free press rights
Sahouri was arrested while on assignment at a Des Moines shopping center to cover protests in the days following the murder of George Floyd, a black man who died as a white policeman knelt on his neck . Floyd’s death sparked unrest across the country and towns, including Des Moines, saw days of protest demanding racial justice and police changes.
Police and prosecutors have provided few details about the May 31 incident. Sahouri said she repeatedly told police that she was a journalist working in her official capacity to report on the protest.
The Des Moines Register, which is owned by Gannett, the same parent company as USA TODAY, reported that another reporter from the newspaper who was with Sahouri and not arrested corroborated his account of the events.
Sahouri declined to comment on USA TODAY so close to the trial. Nicholas Klinefeldt, his attorney, also told USA TODAY he couldn’t comment until the trial was over. Polk County District Attorney John Sarcone also declined to comment on USA TODAY, citing the ongoing trial and ethical considerations.
In an August 20 statement to the Des Moines Register, Sarcone said: “We strongly disagree with the way this case has been characterized and we will speak in the courtroom, which is the appropriate venue for deal with this matter. “
An arrest report of the incident did not name Sahouri in the description of the alleged crimes. The report states that the protest “evolved” and that the group of people “engaged in assaults, intimidation of people and destruction of property”.
“During these activities, the accused was at a distance from hearing the officer ordering him to disperse and failed to leave the area,” the report said.
In video filmed from a police vehicle immediately after her arrest, Sahouri said she told officers she was a journalist and was leaving the area.
“I was like, ‘I’m in a hurry, I’m in a hurry, I’m in a hurry,’” Sahouri said in the video.
Learn more about Sahouri’s case:Judge refuses to dismiss charges against registry reporter, but orders state to produce bodycam footage
Sahouri said she was with her then boyfriend, who was there for security reasons while covering the protests, when the arrest took place and they were fleeing the area. He was hit by a projectile and Sahouri was sprayed with pepper before their arrest, she said. He also pleaded not guilty to similar charges.
“I’m just doing my job as a reporter. I’m just here to report as I see it,” Sahouri said in the video.
In an additional report, written a week after the arrest and later obtained from the Des Moines register, an officer wrote that Sahouri did not identify herself as a journalist until he was in police custody. The report also describes agents spraying chemical irritants into the crowd.
In court, Klinefeldt argued that her client and no one near her should have been sprayed with pepper because they were fleeing the area. He also raised concerns about the discrepancies between the arrest reports of Sahouri and her then-boyfriend, which are almost identical but list two different places of arrest despite being together at the time.
Hunter, editor of the Register, said she was surprised and disappointed that the charges had not been dropped. She also questioned the characterization of the claim that Sahouri was disobeying orders as she was leaving the area.
Freedom of the press includes the freedom to gather information, including being present and reporting at a protest scene, Hunter said.
“Andrea was there as a working reporter and her job was to be the eyes and ears of the public at a historic moment to witness and observe what was unfolding,” said Hunter.
David Ardia, a law professor and co-director of the Center for Media Law and Policy at the University of North Carolina, said being tried in a case like this is “extremely rare.”
The First Amendment does not give journalists a “free pass” to do what the public is not allowed to do at a protest, Ardia said.
But often police departments and prosecutors, through policies or informal arrangements, do not arrest or prosecute journalists for covering these events.
Ardia said the case sends “a frightening message” to reporters that these rights will not be recognized. “He is clearly sending a signal, intentional or not, to other journalists: ‘Do not cover the protests in Des Moines’,” he said.
Sahouri is one of four journalists who have hearings this month over the 2020 arrests in their capacity as journalists, according to McCudden, with the US Press Freedom Tracker.
In most cases related to the 2020 arrests, journalists have seen the charges against them dropped. In Des Moines, the day after Sahouri’s arrest, a freelance journalist was also arrested and these charges were subsequently dismissed at the request of prosecutors.
Find out more about the 2020 events:Blinded, injured and arrested journalists covering George Floyd protests across the country
The number of journalists arrested last year – at least 126 – was higher than the total number of arrests the US Press Freedom Tracker had documented in all years since its inception in 2017, McCudden said.
In 2019, nine journalists were arrested or detained, according to the tracker.
McCudden said it was “extraordinary” for the case to stand trial given the few cases that have come to this point. But in 2020, especially at the height of the protests, arrests and detention of journalists appeared to be an ordinary occurrence, she said.
McCudden described the reasons for the rise in arrests of journalists in 2020 as “onion layers”. The majority of arrests took place during the Floyd protests. The period has been “a very tense one,” following anti-lockdown protests against coronavirus restrictions and in the middle of an election year involving President Donald Trump, who has regularly criticized and attacked reporters, McCudden said .
Sahouri first arrived at the registry in August 2019 as an intern covering breaking news, Hunter said. In April 2020, she started working full time as a public safety reporter, regularly covering police calls, road accidents and weather.
Hunter described Sahouri as “a very empathetic interviewer,” adding that she often spoke with the families of victims of accidents or crime and “could put them at ease enough to share their stories.”
In February, she was named one of three recipients of the Jay P. Wagner Award for Young Journalists, an award from the Iowa Newspaper Foundation.
In Sahouri’s nomination letter for the award, Hunter wrote: “Andrea is not discouraged. She continues to research the stories of the Iowans and hold law enforcement and other officials accountable for their actions.”
Contributor: Tyler J. Davis, Des Moines Register
Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller