Iowa Prosecutors Move Ahead With Prosecuting A Journalist For Being Present At A Protest

from the those-people-are-interested-in-facts!-get-'em! dept

There's an ongoing trial in (of all places) Iowa that cuts to the heart of First Amendment protections for journalists. Andrea Sahouri, an award-winning journalist for the Des Moines Register, was arrested last May during a protest resulting from the killing of an unarmed black man by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin.

Despite attempting to identify herself as a member of the press, Sahouri was hit with a tear gas canister, pepper sprayed, and arrested for "failure to disperse." According to Des Moines police, Sahouri wasn't wearing any press credentials, something that has been acknowledged by both Sahouri and her editor at the Register.

However, it's also not clear at this point that any order to disperse had been given, making anyone -- much less a journalist -- subject to arrest for not immediately leaving the area. The lack of press credentials could be a problem, but it's also being argued Sahouri was known by officers and should have been recognized as someone covering the protest, rather than participating in it. Journalists generally aren't subject to orders to disperse.

Her newspaper issued this statement in its editorial against her prosecution:

Journalists cover protests to serve as the eyes and ears of the public, to ensure free speech and assembly rights are upheld and to seek out the truth of what unfolds, whether a protest is peaceful or violent and whether law enforcement’s response is viewed as proportional or excessive.

And this clash of press freedom vs. riot control isn't limited to Iowa. It's been happening all over the nation. Journalists have been targeted with riot control weapons as well as arrested for covering protests. And there are similar cases all around the nation, as the Register points out:

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented an alarming increase in arrests and detainment of journalists in 2020: at least 126, compared to nine in all of 2019. Most of them, like Sahouri’s, happened at protests as Americans took to the streets to demand change from their government, after the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police, and preceding and following the tumultuous November election.

Prosecutors believe they're doing nothing wrong, even though testimony at the trial appears to show Sahouri was moving away from police officers and the area they were seeking to control when she was arrested. This is the defensive statement issued by the prosecutor's office:

“We strongly disagree with how this matter has been characterized and will do our talking in the courtroom, which is the proper place to deal with this case."

The talking in the courtroom has begun. And there's already at least one troublesome detail. The officer performing the arrest could have presented an almost-indisputable record of the incident, but chose not to.

First, there's the footage that's actually available, which would appear to show the journalist moving away from police -- something that suggests she was exiting the area in response to an order to disperse.

Sahouri and Robnett can be seen coming around the corner shortly before police, but the camera angle does not show the spot where they were actually arrested.

Then there's the arresting officer, Luke Wilson, who -- despite being engaged in crowd control efforts -- decided none of it was worth documenting.

Wilson did not activate his camera for the arrest, and although it is possible to retrieve video after the fact, it was not done in time to save the footage from being overwritten. Wilson says he thought he activated the camera when he disembarked from a police vehicle, but didn't notice in the resulting chaos that it was not on.

Seems like something you'd want to verify before entering a chaotic scene that implicates any number of Constitutional rights and criminal acts. But the officer claims it was so chaotic he couldn't be bothered to expend the second or two needed to ensure his body camera was on. Even if we believe Wilson's lack of recording was accidental, it shows officers aren't following body camera protocol and will still choose to verify recording status only when it's convenient to them.

Then there's the police department itself. Its officers entered the scene broadcasting conflicting instructions:

Squad car public address systems can be heard in the background telling people to "disperse" and also "protest peacefully."

So, it can't be argued by the PD that a clear order to disperse had been given. If Sahouri wasn't engaged in violent acts or non-peaceful protesting -- something that's not only unlikely given her position as a journalist, but also according to the footage available -- the officers had no justification for this arrest. You can't tell people to do both but only choose to arrest those that followed one of the two orders: peaceful protesters.

This case isn't over yet. It will go before a jury. The facts don't look good for the Des Moines PD, which not only arrested a journalist, but did so despite her following at least one of the conflicting orders being issued by officers.

It might be a stretch to say there's been a concerted effort by law enforcement to target journalists during these protests. But it's undeniable that some officers and agencies have deliberately gone after journalists merely for documenting crowd control efforts. No one willing to engage in unjustified force wants to have their actions documented. And when that's the mindset, even those thoroughly protected by the First Amendment are considered enemies of the state.

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Filed Under: 1st amendment, andrea sahouri, free speech, iowa, journalism, protests


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  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 10 Mar 2021 @ 11:47am

    Re:

    Fitting and well earned but that's got to sting, as the judge is basically telling the jury that the police are known liars and any lack of evidence should be seen through that lens.


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