Journalist acquitted: Covering protests against racism is not a crime

After a three-day trial an Iowa jury has found Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri not guilty on misdemeanor charges stemming from her coverage of a June 2020 demonstration against racist police violence. Police pepper-sprayed the journalist in the face and arrested her as she covered a local protest against police brutality.

The police alleged that they ordered the crowd to disperse, but three people, including two journalists, testified under oath that no such order or notice was given. Body cam footage that would have cleared up any question of what happened was deleted by the police.

During the trial Sahouri testified to her brutalization by police: “I put up my hands and I say ‘I’m press’ because he was coming like, right at me, and I didn’t think it was a good idea to run from officers,” she said. “He grabbed me, he pepper-sprayed me and said, ‘That’s not what I asked.’”

Katie Akin, another Register reporter, was also attacked by the police that night. She had been reporting alongside Sahouri when the police moved in. Akin, Sahouri and others had actually moved away to a nearby parking lot before Sahouri was arrested. Despite identifying herself as press 17 times in 30 seconds, police pepper sprayed Akin in the eyes.

The charges against Sahouri were based on characterizing the mass protest not as the protected free speech event it was, but as a group organized for property damage. Since the protest is considered a “group,” anyone, including journalists, could be mass arrested as part of the “group.” This attack is not just against a particular journalist or newspaper, but is rather a tactic of a broader, systematic attempt by the state to suppress the uprising. Targeting journalists who cover demonstrations sends a chilling message to other reporters to dissuade them from showing up at any protest.

Sahouri herself stated that she was not part of the protest. Even if she had been, journalists have the constitutional right to have political beliefs and participate in protests.

What happened at that protest

More than 1,000 people poured into Iowa City streets June 1 in outrage at the police lynching of George Floyd. Many raised local issues of police criminality, including the racist mismanagement of the disappearance of 18 year-old Somali high school student Abdullah “Abdi” Sharif. 

Sahouri herself covered the story of the young student who disappeared on a winter day. The police dismissed Abdi’s case as a runaway, refused to work with the private investigator hired by the family, and withheld critical search and rescue resources. Abdi’s family later learned that FBI agents had visited local mosques to inquire if the high school student had been “radicalized.” His body would be found three months later in the river close to his last known location.

“You can’t stop someone from dying, but what really hurt me is my son being in the water for over three months without (police or the government) doing anything meaningful about it,” Abdi’s mother Famdumo Ahmed said in an interview with Sahouri.

Protesters in Iowa City wrote “Justice 4 Abdi” on the wall of the nearby Target. This and other instances of damage to property were used to justify the arrests of Sahouri and many others that night.

This is what the police wanted to hide from public view by attacking protesters and journalists that night. And it was far from the only time the tactic of targeting members of the press was employed during last year’s uprising against racism. At least 117 journalists were arrested by police while covering protests in 2020. The acquittal of Andrea Sahouri is an important step pushing back against this dangerous trend.

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