Mar 10, 2021 - News
Des Moines reporter's acquittal lauded as victory for press freedom
Photographer is Kelsey Kremer from Des Moines Register

Press freedom advocates are celebrating a decision by jurors in Iowa to acquit Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri of all charges that she incurred while covering a Black Lives Matter protest last May.

Why it matters: The verdict sets a critical precedent for journalists covering protests and political movements moving forward. More than 100 reporters were arrested while covering Black Lives Matter protests last year. While charges against most were eventually dropped, others are still pending.

Details: The jury found that Sahouri and her then-boyfriend Spenser Robnett, who also stood trial this week, were found not guilty of two misdemeanor charges — failure to disperse and interference with official acts.

  • During the three-day trial, the plaintiff argued that Sahouri and Robnett refused to leave the demonstration scene upon police requests. The defense argued the order wasn't clear and they didn't fail to obey commands.
  • Des Moines Officer Luke Wilson, who arrested Sahouri last summer, testified that he made the arrest because Sahouri interfered with the arrest of her then-boyfriend and that she refused to leave the premises after he shot pepper spray to disperse the crowds. His body cam was not recording during the incident.
  • Sahouri testified that she identified herself as "press" but was still pepper sprayed by the police. "I put up my hands," she said. "I said, 'I'm press, I'm, press, I'm press.' He grabbed me, pepper sprayed me and as he was doing so, said 'that's not what I asked.'"

What they're saying: “I’m thankful to the jury for doing the right thing," Sahouri said following the verdict. "Their decision upholds freedom of the press and justice in our democracy,”

  • “We are very grateful that justice was done today, and that Andrea was fully exonerated,'" said Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president of News at Gannett Media, the parent company to the Des Moines Register.
  • "If reporters are arrested and hauled away from protests, that denies people the right to know what’s going on in their community,” said Carol Hunter, executive editor of the Des Moines Register.

Be smart: Trials like this are uncommon in the U.S., as journalists are rarely arrested on the job. This case quickly gained international attention, in part because violence against journalists across the U.S. and globally is on the rise.

  • "During civil unrest over the summer, we documented disturbing cases where journalists were targeted specifically because they were members of the media," said Katherine Jacobsen of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The big picture: Free press advocates are lauding the decision as a victory, but say it's problematic that Sahouri was charged to begin with.

  • "This is a huge relief that she was acquitted but even still, it's deeply disturbing that this case even went to trial in the first place," said Sarah Matthews, a staff attorney with the Reporters Committee.
  • "The fact that this even got to trial sends a really chilling message to journalists, especially those considering covering protests in Des Moines specifically."
  • "As a journalist who documents press freedom violations in the U.S. it’s a concerning precedent for her to have not only been arrested and assaulted with pepper spray while reporting but then to also face trial," said Kirstin McCudden, managing editor of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, in a statement.
  • "The jury verdict is welcome, but doesn’t fully lift the shadow this prosecution has cast over one of our country’s most core values," the Freedom of the Press Foundation said in a statement.

Yes, but: While press freedom experts agree this case sets an important precedent for other similar cases globally, most legal scholars don't believe Sahouri's case will have a major impact on other protestors.

  • "Legally, there’d be no connection between this case and other cases because each case is going to be judged kind of on its own merits," said Steve Foritano, director of the First Year Trial Practicum at Drake University.

What to watch: One of the major issues addressed in this case but still unresolved is how press should identify themselves when covering protests or other dangerous situations where police may be involved without putting themselves in danger.

  • While some TV journalists are easily-identifiable with cameras and microphones, many print journalists often get confused for protestors or other on-the-ground witnesses.
  • Matthews said the Reporters Committee encourages journalists to clearly identify themselves because there are legal benefits in doing so. It puts police on notice that they are are protected to cover protests by the First Amendment.
  • Still, she concedes, "It is very tricky." A good solution for journalists if they feel they are in danger by identifying themselves as press is to potentially remove the logo of your news outlet while still identifying as press and to always have credentials on you, even if not visible.

The bottom line: "Unfortunately there isn't a one-size fits all answer here," Jacobsens said. "It is important that journalists assess the situation on the ground and decide the safest way to report."

For more stories like this, subscribe to the Axios Des Moines newsletter, designed to help readers get smarter, faster on the most consequential news unfolding in their own backyard.

Disclosure: Both Axios' Linh Ta and Jason Clayworth previously worked with Sahouri at the Register.

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