Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri is slated to begin trial next week “in what experts said is a rare criminal prosecution of a journalist on assignment in the USA,” USA Today reports.
Andrea Sahouri faces charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts and is set to stand trial starting Monday.
At least 126 journalists were arrested or detained in 2020, but only 13 still face charges, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. The group’s managing editor, Kirstin McCudden, said it’s “surprising and unknown” why Sahouri’s charges remain.
Media and journalism groups called for the charges to be dropped, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and students and staff from the Columbia University School of Journalism, where Sahouri earned a master’s degree. The human rights organization Amnesty International has also taken up the cause.
Sahouri was arrested while on assignment at a mall in Des Moines to cover protests in the days after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died as a white police officer knelt on his neck. Floyd’s death provoked unrest across the country, and Des Moines experienced days of protest demanding racial justice and changes to policing.
Sahouri said in a video, filmed in a police vehicle immediately after she was arrested, that she had told officers she was a reporter and was leaving the area.
“I was saying, ‘I’m press, I’m press, I’m press,’” Sahouri said in the video.
Sahouri said that she was with her then-boyfriend, who was there for safety reasons while covering the protests, when the arrest occurred and that they were fleeing the area. He was hit by a projectile, and Sahouri was pepper-sprayed before they were arrested, she said. He pleaded not guilty to similar charges.
The Des Moines Register “reported that another reporter at the newspaper who was with Sahouri and not arrested corroborated her account of the events,” USA Today noted.
Carol Hunter, executive editor of the Des Moines Register, said the newspaper is helping Sahouri fight the charges because they “see it as a fundamental principle … that a reporter has a right to be at a protest scene to be able to observe what is going on and to report.”
David Ardia, a law professor and co-director at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Media Law and Policy, said it is “exceedingly rare” to see a case like this go to trial.
The First Amendment does not give journalists a “free pass” to do what the public is not permitted to do at a protest, Ardia said, but police departments and prosecutors, through policies or informal understandings, do not often arrest or prosecute journalists for covering the events.
Ardia said the case sends “a chilling message” to journalists that their rights won’t be recognized. “It’s clearly sending a signal, whether it’s intentional or not, to other reporters: ‘Don’t cover protests in Des Moines,’” he said.
Image credit: Screengrab / Amnesty International Ireland / YouTube