U.S. journalist arrested while covering protest in Iowa goes on trial

If convicted on the misdemeanor charges, Andrea Sahouri could be fined hundreds of dollars, sentenced to 30 days and will have a criminal record.
Police arrest newspaper reporter Andrea Sahouri after a Black Lives Matter protest she was covering on May 31 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Police arrest newspaper reporter Andrea Sahouri after a Black Lives Matter protest she was covering on May 31 in Des Moines, Iowa. [ KATIE AKIN | AP ]
Published Mar. 8, 2021|Updated Mar. 8, 2021

IOWA CITY, Iowa — A journalist went on trial Monday on charges stemming from her coverage of a protest against racial injustice in Des Moines last year after Iowa prosecutors defied international pressure to drop a rare effort to punish a working reporter.

Des Moines Register news reporter Andrea Sahouri, who was pepper-sprayed and jailed while reporting on a clash between protesters and police in May, is charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts.

If convicted on the simple misdemeanor charges, the 25-year-old could be fined hundreds of dollars and will have a criminal record. A judge could also sentence her up to 30 days in jail on each count, although that would be unusual.

Related: Two Tampa Bay Times reporters placed in zip ties while covering protests

Advocates for journalism and human rights in the U.S. and abroad have pressed Iowa authorities to drop the charges, arguing that Sahouri was simply doing her job by documenting the event. But prosecutors in the office of Polk County Attorney John Sarcone have pressed forward with the case against Sahouri and her former boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, who faces the same charges.

The pair are standing trial in a courtroom at Drake University in Des Moines as part of a program for law students. The university is broadcasting the proceedings, which are expected to last two days. Lawyers began selecting a six-member jury from a larger pool on Monday morning.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has not recorded any other trials of working journalists in the country since 2018. Sahouri was among more than 125 reporters detained or arrested during the civil unrest that unfolded across the U.S. in 2020. Thirteen, including Sahouri, still face prosecution although the majority of those arrested were not charged or their charges were dismissed, the group says.

Employees in the Gannett newspaper chain, which owns USA Today, the Register and hundreds of other newspapers, have flooded social media with support for Sahouri in recent days. Columbia Journalism School, where Sahouri graduated in 2019 before joining the Register, expressed solidarity Monday by promoting the hashtags #StandWithAndrea and #JournalismIsNotACrime.

Amnesty International launched a campaign to publicize her case and demand the charges be dismissed.

Sahouri was assigned to cover a May 31 protest at Merle Hay mall, where activists were demanding better treatment for people of color after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white officer put his knee on his neck for about nine minutes.

Some protesters threw water bottles and rocks at police, broke store windows and vandalized a Target store. Police responded by spraying tear gas to disperse a large crowd from an intersection. Sahouri reported the details live on Twitter.

Sahouri was running from the gas when Robnett was hit in the leg with a projectile — likely a tear gas canister or rubber bullet launched by police. She briefly stopped to check on him before continuing around the corner of a Verizon store. Officer Luke Wilson then arrested her, burning her eyes with a blast of pepper spray and cuffing her hands in zip ties, Sahouri says.

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Wilson has said he didn’t know Sahouri was a journalist until Robnett intervened during the arrest. Robnett told the officer that Sahouri was a Register journalist and tried to pull Sahouri away from him, Wilson says. Prosecutors say the officer did not activate his body camera during the arrest or use a camera function to retrieve the video after the fact before it was erased.

Sahouri was not wearing press credentials at the time but repeatedly identified herself as press. A Register colleague who wasn’t arrested also immediately vouched for her employment to police. Nonetheless, Sahouri was loaded into a police van and jailed for a couple of hours.

Prosecutors have tried to defend the arrest by arguing that journalists do not have special rights to ignore police dispersal orders, including one that had been given roughly 90 minutes earlier.

- Ryan J. Foley