Reporter faces trial in case seen as attack on press rights

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Katie Akin

Police officers are shown arresting Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri after a Black Lives Matter protest she was covering on May 31, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa, was dispersed by tear gas. Sahouri is set to stand trial on Monday, March 8, 2021, on misdemeanor charges, a case that prosecutors have pursued despite international condemnation from advocates for press freedom. (Photo courtesy Katie Akin via AP)

IOWA CITY, Iowa – An Iowa journalist faces trial Monday on charges stemming from her coverage of a protest against racial injustice, a case that prosecutors have pursued despite international condemnation from free press advocates who say she was just doing her 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 protests that erupted last summer and occasionally turned violent.

Sahouri and her former boyfriend are charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts, misdemeanors that could bring fines and up to 30 days in jail. They face an estimated two-day trial at Drake University in what the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker says could be the first for a working journalist nationwide since 2018.

Sahouri’s newspaper, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and Amnesty International are among press advocates that have demanded Polk County drop the charges, which they call an abuse of power that violate the Constitution's First Amendment.

“This is outrageous. Reporting at a protest scene as a working 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 have not backed down. They argue that Sahouri wasn't wearing press credentials and appeared to be a participant in an unlawful assembly, saying journalists do not have a free pass to ignore dispersal orders. The only such order identified in court documents was issued roughly 90 minutes before the arrest.

Sahouri, recently honored by the Iowa Newspaper Association as one of the state’s best young reporters, has continued to cover public safety while the charges have loomed.

While 126 journalists were arrested or detained during 2020’s unrest, most either weren’t charged or had charges dropped, the Press Freedom Tracker says. Fourteen still face charges.