Free press advocates are celebrating after a jury in Iowa acquitted journalist Andrea Sahouri.
On Wednesday, the Des Moines Register reporter was found not guilty of failing to disperse and interfering with official acts while she was covering a Black Lives Matter protest in May of 2020. She was facing misdemeanor charges that could have resulted in fines and 30 days in jail.
Her case, unusual for a journalist in the U.S., was seen as a test for the First Amendment.
After feeling exhausted this week, 25-year-old Sahouri woke up on Thursday feeling “powerful” because she got to tell the world her side of the story. Being acquitted of an unjust arrest sets a precedent, she says.
Sahouri says she was only doing her journalistic duties when a police officer Luke Wilson pepper sprayed her and her then-boyfriend, who she says insisted on accompanying her for protection. After pepper spraying her “right in the face at close range,” the officer then arrested her on the spot and told her, “‘That's not what I asked,’ she recalls.
She identified herself as a journalist many times throughout the ordeal, she says. As she was running away from tear gas, an officer began to charge at her. She froze, put her hands up, and repeatedly verbalized that she was a part of the press, she recalls.
On the day of her arrest, Sahouri was not wearing press credentials, which isn’t required, she says. As she waited in jail, Sahouri says she kept telling officers she worked for the Register.
Police body cam footage, shown to the six-person jury, corroborated Sahouri’s account of the events leading up to the arrest. Register reporters on the scene were “covering it well and while following police orders,” she says. “The evidence clearly proves that and the jury also agreed.”
Wilson testified that his unit was ordered to coat the area with pepper spray to disperse protesters at the scene, NPR reports. He also said he did not know she was a journalist at the time of her arrest.
Other journalists were arrested in similar situations across the country last summer, but very few of them were actually prosecuted like Sahouri. The cases against other members of the press were almost immediately dropped. The journalist says she still questions why the state of Iowa would “waste resources to pursue this case.”
Sahouri is Palestinian. She’s questioned in the past if perhaps race played a role in the state’s motivation to prosecute her. While she can’t prove motive, she says she lets the facts speak for itself.
“I was the only journalist of color at that protest. I was with another reporter who was right next to me as I was arrested and she wasn't arrested,” Sahouri says. “She was able to go.”
There was a lot at stake for the freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Sahouri’s case. She believes it could have had harsh impacts on silencing both journalists and protestors if she had not been acquitted.
“It's essential for us to be able to document historical moments,” she says. “And without journalists, I can't even imagine what our society would be like today.”
This segment aired on March 11, 2021.