In a rare situation in the United States, an Iowa court said a reporter was arrested while covering a racial justice protest in the city of Des Moines in May last year.
Around this time, anti-racist and anti-police violence erupted in the United States and around the world following the death of George Floyd, a black man suffocated by a white policeman during an action on May 25 in Minneapolis.
Andrea Sahouri, who covered public safety for the Des Moines Register, a local news site, was following a chaotic protest at a mall that ended up being looted on May 31.
The protest began peacefully in a park, and it was not until the protest reached the business establishment that the situation worsened. Sahouri and her then boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, were eventually sprayed with pepper spray when police cleared the place and were then arrested. They are accused of not dispersing and of intervening in official acts
In her testimony, as reported in the Washington Post, the reporter said that she raised her hands and said, “I’m from the press” because the police were approaching her and she did not think that it was a good idea to run away. . “He grabbed me, threw pepper spray at me and said, ‘That’s not what I asked for.’
Officer Luke Wilson said when he arrived at the mall he saw several people throwing objects and firing pepper spray in an attempt to disperse the protest. He confirmed Sahouri had been hit with pepper spray, but insisted that she had not identified as a journalist before the arrest and was one of the few people who did not leave places.
According to him, Robnett tried to prevent his then-friend from being arrested by pulling him away from Wilson, who also used pepper spray on him and arrested him.
Robnett testified, however, that he never heard the order to disperse and said he never removed Sahouri from the police. The journalist’s colleague at the registry, Katie Atkin, endorsed Robnett’s testimony, saying that she also did not hear such an order from the police and that she saw no interference in the arrest.
The contradictions in the testimony of Sahouri, Robnett and Atkin could in part be resolved with recordings of the camera Wilson wore in his uniform, but police say the footage has been removed. The officer said he forgot to press the button to save the video.
Still, the police department is conducting an independent internal review of a video of another officer spraying chemicals with Akin’s eyes after she identified herself as a reporter 17 times in 30 seconds.
Other than that, authorities have spoken very little publicly about the case in the ten-month interval between Sahouri’s arrest and trial.
She was among 126 journalists arrested or detained in the line of duty while covering protests after Floyd’s death, according to US Press Freedom Tracker data. The majority, however, either did not finalize the charges or they were dropped.
Sahouri and a dozen other journalists still face charges, and Polk County’s decision to take their case to court has proven to be a cause for free speech advocates.
Although the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not give journalists any privileges to travel to places the general public cannot, prosecutors have traditionally not pursued charges against journalists covering a protest, said David Ardia. , professor of law at the Washington Post. University of North Carolina.
Ardia also said the case was a departure from “a custom recognized by prosecutors and law enforcement agencies across the country.” […] that it is not in the public interest to prosecute journalists for doing their job ”.
In the initial argument, however, the prosecution presented the case as a straightforward matter, whether Sahouri and Robnett followed or interfered with police instructions, without mentioning the journalistic profession.
Defense lawyer Nicholas Klinefeldt, meanwhile, didn’t use half words. “This case concerns a journalist who was arrested while doing her job,” he said. “She was beaten.”
The two have already completed their statements on the case and the jury is expected to deliver a verdict on Wednesday (10).