By RYAN J. FOLEY
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A journalist went on trial Monday on charges stemming from her coverage of a protest against racial injustice in Des Moines last year, after Iowa prosecutors defied international pressure to drop a rare effort to punish a working reporter.
Des Moines Register news reporter Andrea Sahouri, who was pepper-sprayed and jailed while reporting on a clash between protesters and police in May, is charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts.
If convicted on the simple misdemeanor charges, the 25-year-old Sahouri would be fined hundreds of dollars and have a criminal record. A judge could also sentence her up to 30 days in jail on each count, although that would be unusual.
Advocates for journalism and human rights in the U.S. and abroad have pressed Iowa authorities to drop the charges, arguing that Sahouri was simply doing her job by documenting the event. But prosecutors in the office of Polk County Attorney John Sarcone have pressed forward with the case against Sahouri and her former boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, who faces the same charges.
The pair are standing trial in a courtroom at Drake University in Des Moines as part of a program for law students. The university is broadcasting the proceedings, which are expected to last two days. Lawyers selected a six-member jury Monday morning, and prosecutors were expected to begin their case in the afternoon.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has not recorded any other trials of working journalists in the country since 2018. Sahouri was among more than 125 reporters detained or arrested during the civil unrest that unfolded across the U.S. in 2020. Thirteen, including Sahouri, still face prosecution although the majority of those arrested were not charged or their charges were dismissed, the group says.
Employees in the Gannett newspaper chain, which owns USA Today, the Register and hundreds of other newspapers, have flooded social media with support for Sahouri in recent days. Columbia Journalism School, where Sahouri graduated in 2019 before joining the Register, expressed solidarity Monday by promoting the hashtags #StandWithAndrea and #JournalismIsNotACrime.
Amnesty International launched a campaign to publicize her case and demand the charges be dismissed.
Sahouri was assigned to cover a May 31 protest at Merle Hay mall, where activists were demanding better treatment for people of color after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was declared dead after a white officer put his knee on his neck for about nine minutes.
Some protesters threw water bottles and rocks at police, broke store windows and vandalized a Target store. Police responded by spraying tear gas to disperse a large crowd from an intersection. Sahouri reported the details live on Twitter.
Prosecutor Brecklyn Carey told jurors that body camera footage will show police giving a dispersal order to a crowd that included both defendants around 6:30 p.m. at an intersection outside the mall. Testimony will show that the pair was arrested around 90 minutes later at the same intersection, and that Robnett tried to pull Sahouri away from the officer who arrested them, she said.
Carey urged jurors in an opening statement to keep their “eyes on the ball” and answer only three questions: was there a dispersal order, did the two disperse, and did they pull away from the officer?
But defense lawyer Nicholas Klinefeldt told jurors that the case was about a journalist who was wrongly arrested while doing her job.
He said Sahouri was assigned to cover the protest, and Robnett accompanied her for safety reasons. He said the 6:30 p.m. dispersal order was intended only to clear people who were blocking a squad car, and that both complied.
When police deployed tear gas before 8 p.m., Sahouri and Robnett ran away and around the corner of a Verizon store. Officer Luke Wilson then grabbed her and blasted pepper spray into her face as she put her hands in the air and yelled that she was press, Klinefeldt said.
The officer told Sahouri “that’s not what I asked,” Klinefeldt said. Then, Wilson shot pepper spray at Robnett after he yelled that she was a journalist. A second Register reporter who was nearby was ordered to leave but not arrested, he said.
Sahouri was loaded into a police van and jailed for a couple of hours.
Prosecutors say Wilson did not activate his body camera during the arrest or use a camera function to retrieve the video after the fact before it was erased.