In 'exceedingly rare' case, Iowa journalist faces charges from reporting on summer protests

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 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, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press 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."

Opinion: Trying a Des Moines Register reporter arrested while covering a protest violates free press rights

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.

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.

If convicted, Sahouri could face up to 30 days in jail and over $600 in fines for each offense.

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 of the incident did not name Sahouri in describing the alleged crimes. 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 immediately after her arrest, Sahouri said she 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.

More on Sahouri's case: Judge declines to dismiss charges against Register reporter but orders state to produce bodycam footage

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.

"I'm just doing my job as a journalist. I'm just out here reporting as I see," Sahouri said in the video.

In a supplemental report, written a week after the arrest and obtained by the Des Moines Register, an officer wrote Sahouri did not identify herself as a reporter until she was in police custody. The report described officers spraying chemical irritants in the crowd.

In court, Klinefeldt argued that his client and those near her shouldn't have been pepper-sprayed because they were fleeing the area. He raised issues around discrepancies between Sahouri's and her then-boyfriend's arrest reports, which are nearly identical but list two different arrest locations despite them being together at the time.

Hunter, the Register's executive editor, said she was surprised and disappointed the charges hadn't been dropped. She questioned the claim that Sahouri disobeyed orders, given that she was leaving the area.

Freedom of the press includes freedom to gather news, including being present at a protest scene, Hunter said.

"Andrea was there as a working journalist, and her job was to be the eyes and ears to the public at a historic moment, witnessing and observing what was unfolding," Hunter said.

David Ardia, a law professor and co-director 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, 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.

Sahouri is one of four journalists who have hearings this month in connection with arrests in 2020 in their capacity as journalists, according to McCudden, with the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

In most cases, reporters had charges against them dropped. In Des Moines, the day after Sahouri's arrest, a freelance journalist was arrested, and those charges were dismissed at the request of prosecutors.

More on 2020 protests: Journalists blinded, injured, arrested covering George Floyd protests nationwide

The number of reporters arrested last year – at least 126 – was more than the total number of arrests that the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documented in all years combined since its inception in 2017, McCudden said.

In 2019, nine journalists were arrested or detained, according to the tracker.

McCudden said it is "extraordinary" that the case is going to trial, given how few cases get this far. During 2020, especially in the height of the protests, the arrests and detainment of journalists appeared to become an ordinary occurrence, she said.

McCudden described the reasons for the uptick in journalist arrests in 2020 like "onion layers." The majority of the arrests came during the Floyd protests. The period was "a very tense time," coming on the heels of anti-lockdown protests against coronavirus restrictions and in the middle of an election year involving a president, Donald Trump, who routinely criticized journalists, McCudden said.

Sahouri came to the Register in August 2019 as an intern covering breaking news, Hunter said. In April 2020, she started working full-time as a public safety reporter, routinely covering police calls, traffic accidents and weather.

Hunter described Sahouri as "a very empathetic interviewer," who often spoke with the families of victims of accidents or crimes and was "able to make them comfortable enough to share their stories."

In February, she was named one of three winners of the Jay P. Wagner Prize for Young Journalists, an award given by the Iowa Newspaper Foundation.

In a letter nominating Sahouri for the award, Hunter wrote, "Andrea is undeterred. She continues to seek out Iowans’ stories and hold law enforcement and other officials accountable for their actions."

Contributing: Tyler J. Davis, Des Moines Register

Follow USA TODAY's Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Andrea Sahouri: Iowa reporter still faces George Floyd protest charges