Reporter’s trial violates First Amendment freedoms

The following editorial by the Des Moines Register addresses the troubling trial that begins March 8 for a reporter who was arrested while covering protests in Des Moines in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd.

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council agrees with the Register’s editorial. All Iowans should be troubled by this abuse of prosecutorial discretion by Polk County Attorney John Sarcone.

The Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment for this very purpose — to allow the media to scrutinize the actions of law officers.

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Freedom of the press stands alongside freedom of religion, speech, assembly and petition as the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

That makes the upcoming trial of a Des Moines Register reporter who was doing her job covering a protest last spring all the more troubling.

Andrea Sahouri is scheduled to stand trial starting March 8 on charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts.

That this trial is happening at all is a violation of free press rights and a miscarriage of justice. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented an alarming increase in arrests and detainment of journalists in 2020: at least 126, compared to nine in all of 2019. Most of them, like Sahouri’s, happened at protests as Americans took to the streets to demand change from their government after the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police and preceding and following the tumultuous November election. As the tracker’s managing editor, Kirstin McCudden, and others have noted, “for journalists the most dangerous place in America is at a protest.”

It’s frightening that so many arrests and detainments have happened in a country that considers itself a beacon of press freedom. There’s disturbing evidence in some cases that police targeted those arrested because they were journalists. But let’s give officers the benefit of the doubt and chalk up many of the arrests to the “fog of war” as officers made split-second decisions in chaotic situations that were dangerous for all involved.

And indeed, once it was made clear that the person involved was a working journalist, in the vast majority of instances, the journalist was released without being charged or the charges were quickly dropped. But charges from 2020 arrests remain pending against 16 journalists around the country, including Sahouri, according to the tracker. Sahouri’s case and another scheduled for the same day would be the first from the 2020 arrests to go to trial.

Sahouri was arrested on May 31, the third straight day of protests in Des Moines following Floyd’s death. Journalists cover protests to serve as the eyes and ears of the public, to ensure free speech and assembly rights are upheld and to seek out the truth of what unfolds, whether a protest is peaceful or violent and whether law enforcement’s response is viewed as proportional or excessive.

Each day, the demonstrations in Des Moines started peacefully but devolved through the night into bottle-throwing at police, window-breaking and other vandalism. Police responded with dispersal orders, tear gas, pepper spray and arrests.

Sahouri, a public safety reporter for the Register, had covered the protests all three days. From about 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. on May 31, she covered a peaceful march near Evelyn Davis Park, north of downtown, and then was assigned to cover a growing gathering near Merle Hay Mall, about 5 miles away in northwest Des Moines. Her former boyfriend, fearing for her safety, accompanied her.

The crowd, which started with about a dozen protesters at mid-afternoon, swelled to well over 100 by 6:30 p.m., when Sahouri started tweeting photos and observations as protesters blocked traffic on Merle Hay Road and Douglas Avenue. Just before 8 p.m., police deployed tear gas and “drove vandals and other protesters away from the mall and across Douglas Avenue,” the Register reported. Sahouri moved with the protesters and was across the street from the mall when she was pepper-sprayed in the face and arrested.

By department policy, the arresting officer should have activated his body camera to capture video of the arrest, but he did not. Sahouri and her boyfriend say they repeatedly identified her as a reporter. In a video shot by Sahouri while in a police transport vehicle, she says she moved away from police and repeatedly stated that she was press. Another Register reporter who was with Sahouri but was not arrested shared the same account of Sahouri’s arrest. Editors and Register attorneys quickly notified authorities that Sahouri was a Register reporter on assignment to cover the protest and demanded she be released. Yet she was detained for a total of about three hours and taken to the Polk County Jail. The charges filed against her remain pending.

Polk County Attorney John Sarcone has said little publicly about his insistence on pursuing these charges.

“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. Have a good day,” Sarcone said Aug. 20 in a written statement to the Register.

Sahouri, who has worked as a reporter for the Register since August 2019, was doing her constitutionally protected job at the protest, conducting interviews, taking photos and recording what was happening.

If convicted, she’ll have a criminal record and faces possible penalties of 30 days in jail and a fine of $625 for each offense. 

When reporters are arrested, assaulted or otherwise prevented from doing their jobs, it’s not an attack on just a single journalist or a media company. It’s an attack on everyone’s rights to be informed and to hold those in power accountable for their actions.

Sarcone needs to do his job and dismiss these charges, which clearly violate free press rights.