Journalist faces charges from reporting on Iowa protests

- Ryan W. Miller Contributi­ng: Tyler J. Davis, Des Moines Register

The trial of a Des Moines Register reporter who was arrested covering racial justice protests last summer is slated to begin next week in what experts said is a rare criminal prosecutio­n of a journalist on assignment in the USA.

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 14 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.

“That this trial is happening at all is a violation of free press rights and a miscarriag­e of justice,” the Des Moines Register’s Editorial Board wrote in an editorial.

Carol Hunter, the newspaper’s executive editor, told USA TODAY that the Register 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.”

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.

Police and prosecutor­s have provided few details about the incident May 31. Sahouri said she repeatedly told officers 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 at the newspaper who was with Sahouri and not arrested corroborat­ed her account of the events.

Sahouri declined to comment to USA TODAY so close to trial. Nicholas Klinefeldt, her attorney, told USA TODAY he could not comment until the trial was over. Polk County Attorney John Sarcone declined to comment as well, citing the pending trial and ethical considerat­ions.

In a statement Aug. 20 to the Des Moines Register, Sarcone said, “We strongly disagree with how this matter has been characteri­zed and will do our talking in the courtroom, which is the proper place to deal with this case.”

An arrest report did not name Sahouri. The report said the protest had “evolved” and people were “engaging in assaultive conduct, the intimidati­on of people and destructio­n of property.”

“During these activities, defendant was in hearing distance of the officer giving commands to disperse and failed to leave the area,” the report said.

In a video filmed from a police vehicle after her arrest, Sahouri said she told officers she was a reporter and was leaving the area.

David Ardia, a law professor and codirector at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Media Law and Policy, said going to trial in a case like this is “exceedingl­y rare.”

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 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.

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