Trial for Journalist Who Covered Racial Justice Protests Set to Conclude
PEN America demands prosecutors drop charges against Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri; says conviction would be attack on press freedom nationally
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“These were absurd charges to bring in the first place, which flew in the face of Andrea Sahouri’s First Amendment rights and press freedom. It is welcome news that the jury found her not guilty and acquitted her on all counts. Today is a good day for our free press and one for officials to remember in exercising the rule of law.”
(New York, NY) — Jurors in Iowa today began deliberations in a case against a journalist standing trial for charges related to her work covering last year’s racial justice protests. PEN America today called for charges against reporter Andrea Sahouri to be dropped, and says the proceeding is an affront to press freedom in the United States.
“Criminal charges against a journalist for doing her job have no place in a democracy,” said PEN America’s Nora Benavidez, director of the organization’s U.S. free expression programs. “In this case, criminal charges against a reporter who was covering the movement for racial justice isn’t just an attack on her rights but on press freedom more broadly. Her predicament comes amid an alarming spike in arrests, assaults, and detentions of journalists covering protests over the past year. Prosecutors must display a commitment to the rule of law, beginning most immediately with affirming the First Amendment rights of journalists like Sahouri to do their jobs without fear of retaliation. A conviction in Sahouri’s case would irreparably diminish legal protections for journalists in the United States. The charges against her and those against other reporters for their work during the protests must be dropped.”
Sahouri, a public safety reporter for the Des Moines Register, is on trial this week facing charges of “failure to disperse” and “interference with official acts.” The charges stem from Sahouri’s presence covering a racial justice protest in Des Moines on May 31, 2020. According to Sahouri, she was pepper sprayed and arrested by police after identifying herself as a member of the media. If found guilty, Sahouri could face fines or up to 30 days in jail.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents 128 arrests or detentions of journalists reporting on protests in 2020, a record number. While most charges against members of the press have been dropped, more than 15 cases are still pending. The criminal case against Sahouri marks the first of the 2020 arrests going to trial.
PEN America stands with a growing number of press advocates naming the charges against Sahouri as a blatant attack on press freedom, including the Columbia Journalism School, Amnesty International, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, and Sahouri’s paper the Des Moines Register. An editorial in the Register said, “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.”
PEN America has long stood for the protection of journalists and has advocated for a free press. In 2020, the organization joined calls for federal, state, and local governments to safeguard press freedom and offer special safety protections for journalists, especially in Minneapolis and New York City. PEN America’s Press Freedom Incentive Fund provides financial support for initiatives that mobilize communities to demand an independent and robust local press. By uniting supporters, readers, and writers from coast to coast in support of journalism, PEN America stands in solidarity with local newsrooms nationwide.