Supporters of press freedom celebrated Wednesday after a six-member jury in Iowa acquitted Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri in a three-day trial resulting from her arrest while covering a Black Lives Matter protest last year.
"Reporting is not a crime, and journalists should not be punished for doing their jobs and covering matters of public interest."
—Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ
Sahouri was arrested in the Iowa capital on May 31, 2020 while she was reporting on the uprising sparked by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. The Polk County prosecutor then charged the journalist with two simple misdemeanors—failure to disperse and interference with official acts—that could have resulted in a fine, a 30-day jail sentence, or both.
"The acquittal of journalist Andrea Sahouri in Iowa today is a welcome relief, but Polk County prosecutors never should have filed charges against her in the first place," declared Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) program director Carlos Martinez de la Serna. "Reporting is not a crime, and journalists should not be punished for doing their jobs and covering matters of public interest."
While my editors pore over my latest filings, let me just hop back on here to thank everyone who has followed along with me these past three days. We at the Register obviously considered this trial of utmost importance, and it's gratifying to know so many of you cared too.
— William Morris (@DMRMorris) March 10, 2021
Amnesty International USA's Denise Bell said the human rights group is "incredibly relieved and heartened" to learn that Sahouri was found not guilty of the "bogus charges" and also put her case into a broader context.
"Clearly, the jury saw these charges for what they are—completely ridiculous," she said. "This case should never have gone to trial. In much the same way Sahouri's unfounded arrest is a part of a larger pattern of police abuses, the decision of Polk County prosecutors to bring her to trial on these charges fits a larger pattern of practices undermining human rights within the United States justice system."
"Reporting at a protest as a working member of the media is not a crime, and treating it as one constitutes a human rights violation," Bell continued. "This fits into a larger trend of police forces across the United States committing widespread and egregious human rights violations in response to largely peaceful assemblies protesting systemic racism and police violence, including the killing of Black people."
The Amnesty researcher emphasized that "journalists must be able to report on scenes of protest without fear of retribution. The right of the media to do their work is essential to the right of freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly."
Sahouri said last year in a video recorded in a police transport vehicle that she was pepper-sprayed in her face and arrested after identifying herself as a journalist, saying: "I'm press. I'm press. I'm press."
In a tweet Wednesday highlighting comments from the ACLU of Iowa, the reporter noted that her acquittal "will set precedent for other unjust arrests during protests."
Proud to know my acquittal will set precedent for other unjust arrests during protests.
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That was a huge motivation for me to continue this fight for nearly a year. https://t.co/DIvztvc89i
— Andrea May Sahouri (@andreamsahouri) March 10, 2021
Sahouri said in a statement after the verdict, "I'd like to thank my family and friends, my Des Moines Register and Gannett colleagues and people around Des Moines, nationally and globally, who have supported me for nearly a year after I was unjustly assaulted and arrested."
She also discussed the case in an interview with the Register, saying that "it's really a tough feeling to go through this trial and have the State of Iowa trying to bring you down and trying to make you seem like you're doing something wrong, when you're really just doing your job."
Spenser Robnett, Sahouri's boyfriend last year, was arrested with her; though Robnett faced the same charges, he was also acquitted, according to the newspaper. The journalist explained that although prosecutors offered to drop the other charge if she pleaded guilty to failure to disperse, she felt it was important to go to trial.
"Andrea was assaulted, arrested, charged, and ultimately tried for doing her job."
—Maribel Perez Wadsworth, Gannett Media
"One, I did nothing wrong, regardless of if I'm a journalist or not, but two, I know I'm not going to be the last journalist arrested, by any means," she said. "This will continue. We've seen an upward trend of journalists being arrested just in the past year, in 2020, and it's really important to stand by your convictions and set this kind of precedent."
Gannett Media, the newspaper's parent company, paid for Sahouri's defense, according to president of news Maribel Perez Wadsworth.
"It was clear Andrea was at that protest as a working journalist. It was clear that police were allowing other journalists to do exactly what Andrea was doing that day—reporting from a breaking news scene," said Perez Wadsworth. "Andrea was assaulted, arrested, charged, and ultimately tried for doing her job."
Register executive editor Carol Hunter, who testified at Sahouri's trial, warned of the impact of such arrests.
"Newsgathering is a fundamental part of press freedom. Reporters need to be at protests as the public's eyes and ears, to conduct interviews, take photos, and witness for themselves the actions of protesters and law enforcement," she said. "If reporters are arrested and hauled away from protests, that denies people the right to know what's going on in their community."