Journalist faces trial in case of attack on press rights

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) – An Iowa journalist faces trial Monday on charges stemming from her coverage of a protest against racial injustice, a case prosecutors have pursued despite international condemnation from freedom advocates. say he was just doing his job.

The case of Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri, who was pepper-sprayed and arrested while reporting on a clash between protesters and police, will highlight an aggressive response by Iowa authorities against those who organized and attended the protests that broke out. last summer and occasionally turned violent.

Sahouri and her ex-boyfriend are accused of not dispersing and interfering in official events, minor crimes that could bring fines and up to 30 days in jail. They face a two-day trial at Drake University in what the US Press Freedom Tracker. says it could be the first for a working journalist nationwide since 2018.

Sahouri’s newspaper, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and Amnesty International They are among the advocates of the press who have demanded that Polk County drop the charges, calling it an abuse of power that violates the First Amendment to the Constitution.

“This is outrageous. Reporting at a protest scene as an active member of the media is not a crime. It is a right that must be protected,” Amnesty International said.

But Des Moines police and County Attorney John Sarcone’s office argue that Sahouri was not wearing press credentials and appeared to be a participant in an illegal assembly, saying journalists do not have a free pass to ignore dispersal orders. The only such warrant identified in court documents was issued approximately 90 minutes before the arrest.

At a pretrial hearing on Friday, prosecutor Bradley Kinkade argued that Sahouri’s employment as a reporter “is irrelevant to her charges.”

“This is a standard misdemeanor trial,” he said.

Sahouri, recently honored by the Iowa Association of Newspapers as one of the state’s best young reporters, he has continued to cover public safety as the charges loom.

While 126 journalists were arrested or detained during the 2020 riots, most were not charged or charges were dropped, says the Press Freedom Tracker. Fourteen still face charges.

The determination to prosecute Sahouri has puzzled observers, who note that Iowa courts have a backlog of serious crime cases due to the coronavirus pandemic. Critics say authorities appear to be seeking a conviction to justify an officer’s decision to use force unnecessarily against a reporter known for building trust with crime victims and underrepresented communities.

“It’s like someone with their hand in a cookie jar – they can’t admit they made a mistake,” said Des Moines civil rights attorney Glen Downey, who is not involved in the Sahouri case. “The case is important for the journalistic aspect, but it is also emblematic of how they are treating all the protesters.”

Sahouri, 25, was covering a Black Lives Matter protest at the Merle Hay shopping center when tensions rose between the participants and the police. Her then-boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, accompanied her for security reasons.

Protesters vandalized a Target store, smashed windows, blocked an intersection and threw water bottles and rocks at officers in riot gear.

Sahouri covered the protest live on Twitter, reporting that officers charged a shoe store with rifles and fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Sahouri said he was fleeing the gas when Robnett was hit by a shell and stopped briefly to check on him before continuing around the corner of a Verizon store. That’s when Officer Luke Wilson walked up, fired pepper spray in her face and held her down with zip ties, she says.

Sahouri repeatedly identified herself as a press, but was nevertheless taken to jail. She reported his arrest live from the back of a police van.

Wilson has claimed that he did not know Sahouri was a reporter until he detained her and Robnett intervened, saying she worked for the Registry and tried to drive her away. Wilson says he was unable to activate his body camera.

Judge Lawrence McLellan ordered prosecutors Friday to hand over body camera training materials to Sahouri’s defense that he said should have been delivered in response to an earlier court order.

The defense argues that Wilson could and should have recovered the arrest video after the fact, but refused to do so, potentially to avoid embarrassment. McLellan said he will decide later whether to instruct jurors that the evidence has been destroyed.

Des Moines Register Executive Editor Carol Hunter said Sahouri’s lack of press credentials, which she left in her car, is a “red herring” because police immediately knew she was a journalist and no press credential is required. press to enjoy constitutional protections. Reporters should be free to witness protests and hold participants and police accountable, Hunter said.

“Freedom of the press is based on gathering news,” he said. “This really is an attack on a fundamental party to be able to get the news to the people.”

The newspaper finances the defense of Sahouri, which is headed by former federal prosecutor Nick Klinefeldt.

Prosecutors obtained and may attempt to show jurors text messages between Sahouri and protest leader Matè Muhammad a week after his arrest. His lawyers say the texts are irrelevant and show a journalist’s routine data collection with a source.

Muhammad, who has been fighting charges stemming from the protests, she said she did not know Sahouri when she was arrested, but that they have since developed a professional relationship. He called her “extremely diligent” in vetting and gathering different perspectives.

“We enjoy working with her not because we see her as an activist or on our side,” he said, “but because we consider her fair.”


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