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Des Moines Journalist Arrested While Covering Social Justice Protests Faces Trial Monday

Katie Akin
Police officers are shown arresting Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri after a Black Lives Matter protest she was covering on May 31 in Des Moines was dispersed by tear gas. Sahouri is set to stand trial Monday on misdemeanor charges, a case that prosecutors have pursued despite international condemnation from advocates for press freedom.

Many free press advocates, like Amnesty International and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, have called on the charges against Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri to be dropped. The program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists says not only should the charges be dropped, but an investigation should be launched looking into what lead to the arrest of a working journalist who identified herself as a member of the press.

A Des Moines journalist faces trial Monday on charges from her coverage of protests for racial justice last summer. Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri was pepper-sprayed by police and arrested last May 31 at the Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines. Carlos Martinez de la Serna is program director at the Committee to Protect Journalists. He says the case is unprecedented and it’s not enough for authorities to drop charges.

“There needs to be an investigation around these cases on who is responsible," Martinez de la Serna said. "Why journalists were arrested, were detained [and] harassed. Is there a racial component here?”

The Press Freedom Tracker says 126 journalists were arrested or detained during social justice protests last year. Most were not charged or had charges dropped. Fourteen, including Sahouri, still face charges.

At a pre-trial hearing on Friday, prosecutor Bradley Kinkade argued that Sahouri’s employment as a reporter is irrelevant to her misdemeanor charges. The trial is expected to last two days.

Sahouri and her former boyfriend are charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts, misdemeanors that could bring fines and up to 30 days in jail.

IPR's Clay Masters spoke with Carlos Martinez de la Serna.

Clay Masters: How unprecedented is this that a journalist will stand trial for doing their job?

Carlos Martinez de la Serna: So, it’s really unprecedented within an already unprecedented number of attacks and arrests that we saw last year. To put this in context: throughout 2020, press freedom tracker has documented more than 120 detention arrests of journalists. The scale of attacks to journalists last year was unprecedented. Only a few of these journalists are still facing charges and one of them is Andrea so it is completely an exceptional case.

Clay Masters: This arrest happened during the social justice protests that were taking place across the country last year following the death of George Floyd. A former Register reporter and colleague of Sahouri’s was working alongside her at that same protest and was not arrested. This former colleague is white. Is there any kind of a pattern emerging that would show race is playing into the arrests of these journalists?

Carlos Martinez de la Serna: We have documented hundreds of cases from last year and many of them were journalists of color, different ethnicities or whatever. Some of them felt they were targeted because of that. I can remember a CNN crew that was similar: harassed and attacked by police and detained by the police. And they felt they were targeted because of that and also there are many other testimonies. We can say that this is an extremely grave concern we have and has been documented.

Clay Masters: Are there any examples of court cases where journalists have stood similar trial that give you any kind of ideas as to where this one could go here in Iowa?

Carlos Martinez de la Serna: It’s very difficult for me to speculate on this because of the exceptional case it is. It’s very hard to understand why the charges haven’t been dropped, for example, and why it’s still moving forward. And Andrea, who was arrested on May 31 of last year, is still going through all of these things. So, it’s very difficult to speculate. The only reasonable thing here is for the charges to be dropped as soon as possible, which is already late and for local authorities to open an investigation over everything that went wrong in this case, which is basically everything.

Clay Masters: The executive editor of the Des Moines Register says she fears the charges could have a chilling effect on free press. Do you agree with that statement?

Carlos Martinez de la Serna: Definitely, this is one of the implications of this case. First, we need to focus on helping Andrea. Supporting her as she’s been through this for months and also the toll it takes on a journalist to be arrested. Just to put this in context: she was pepper-sprayed, she was arrested, she was harassed in spite of identifying herself as press many times. So, almost a year after that she still facing charges and needs to appear in court and go through the whole legal process which takes another toll on her. But definitely it has implications for the rest of journalists in terms of what they can expect when they go out and document issues of public interest. So, local authorities, local law enforcement need to the opposite. They need create an environment where journalists can do their jobs and bring the news to the public which is the opposite of what’s currently happening here.

Clay Masters: Thank you for your time.

Carlos Martinez de la Serna: Thank you.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.