Iowa jury acquits journalist who was arrested while covering protest

Hundreds of Americans were arrested during the civil unrest after George Floyd's killing in 2020, including journalists covering the protests. Breaking news reporter for the Des Moines Register Andrea Sahouri, who was found not guilty this week of charges of failing to disperse and interfering with official acts, described her experience and the impact of her arrest to CBSN's Nikki Battiste.

Video Transcript

NIKKI BATTISTE: The summer of 2020 protests not only sparked a reckoning on race, but it also brought a lot of attention to freedom of the press. Journalists from all over the country covered the civil unrest that followed George Floyd's killing. Police arrested hundreds of Americans during these protests, including a large number of journalists.

One of them was "Des Moines Register" breaking news reporter Andrea Sahouri. Her case went to trial. A jury acquitted her last week.

- On the charge of failure to disperse, we find the defendant Andrea May Sahouri not guilty. On the charge of interference with official acts, we find the defendant Andrea May Sahouri not guilty.

NIKKI BATTISTE: Joining me now from Iowa is Andrea Sahouri. Andrea, can you take us back to last year on May 31 and tell us what led up to your arrest?

ANDREA SAHOURI: Yeah, so May 31, I was reporting a really busy commercial area in Des Moines called Meryl Hay Mall. And I was live tweeting so editors can see what I was doing. And they could take my information and put it into a live blog because there is just so much going on.

And obviously, as the protest continued, tensions escalated. Police in riot shields came, deployed tear gas, pepper spray, et cetera. And there was an instance where I was running from the tear gas. And I had crossed the street to get away. And as I'm rounding a business, I look back, and a police officer is charging right at me.

And so immediately, I put up my hands. I didn't think it was a good idea to run from officers. I wasn't doing anything wrong. And I just put up my hands. I said, I'm press, I'm press. And instead, he aggressively held me, pepper sprayed me right in the face at close range. And as he was doing so, he said, that's not what I asked.

NIKKI BATTISTE: We can see in the video how distressed you appeared to be on that day. How has this process of that arrest, your trial, and this recent acquittal changed you?

ANDREA SAHOURI: It was really stressful and traumatic. But honestly, it's only made me a smarter, stronger reporter.

NIKKI BATTISTE: Your paper, "The Des Moines Register," has been critical of Polk County District attorney John Sarcone in the past. Do you feel the trial was the result of some kind of vendetta that he may have had?

ANDREA SAHOURI: I can't speak for John Sarcone or anything. I really couldn't tell you what was going through his mind at the time. I mean, he clearly believed there was evidence against me. But quite the contrary.

As the trial showed, there is evidence to show that I did nothing wrong. And I was actually just doing my job while complying with police orders. And their main testimony, the main evidence that the state produced against me was local TV footage saying that I was there after the dispersal order. The dispersal order was really unclear.

And the officer who arrested me and pepper sprayed me in the face didn't have his body camera footage on, which is a violation of Des Moines Police Department policy. And it wasn't able to be retrieved. He didn't notify a supervisor or anything like that.

NIKKI BATTISTE: As I mentioned, you were just acquitted. Do you plan to return to your position as a breaking news reporter?

ANDREA SAHOURI: Yeah, that's the plan as of now. We'll see what happens in the coming months. But I plan to-- since day one, I've always said, I'm not going to let anyone tell me how or what job I should be doing. And I'm going to continue just doing great work, telling the stories of my communities, and holding powerful institutions accountable.

NIKKI BATTISTE: Andrea, as you know, you were one of more than 120 journalists who were arrested during the civil unrest after the George Floyd killing. That's up from just nine arrests the year before. Media outlets and journalism groups, including your own alma mater, Columbia University, called for the charges against you to be dropped. How did it feel, knowing so much of the industry was in fact supporting you?

ANDREA SAHOURI: It was definitely-- it was just beyond incredible, honestly. I had support from every corner of the globe, really. And it was just a really big relief to feel that support and to know that people were standing behind me and recognizing the importance of journalism, especially in times like these.

NIKKI BATTISTE: I think people sometimes don't realize that sometimes, being a journalist can be very dangerous. We're put into situations that are just inherently dangerous. What advice do you have for fellow journalists who are covering stories like a protest or others that might put them not in just physical danger but in a situation that you were in?

ANDREA SAHOURI: Yeah, so take your safety seriously, 100%. But at the same time, don't let what happened to me deter you. There's a reason why people will try to silence journalists or silence the media. And we have an important job to play, not just in our communities but in upholding democracy.

And I would just tell people and journalists, future journalists, current journalists to not forget how important our job is. Yes, take your safety and take your mental health. And just take that and don't forget that. But we do have an important job to play.

NIKKI BATTISTE: Andrea Sahouri, thank you for sharing your story with us.