A reporter for a newspaper in the U.S. state of Iowa who was pepper-sprayed and arrested while covering Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year was acquitted of all charges Wednesday.
After deliberating for less than two hours, a jury found Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri not guilty of charges that included failure to disperse and interference with official acts.
Following the jury’s decision, Sahouri tweeted one word: “Acquitted,” along with two photos of her arrest.
The six-person jury also voted to acquit Spenser Robnett, Sahouri’s former boyfriend, who was with her at the time of her arrest.
The Des Moines protest in which Sahouri was arrested occurred shortly after the death of George Floyd while he was in police custody in Minneapolis last May.
Des Moines Police Officer Luke Wilson said Monday that Sahouri did not leave the area when he repeatedly used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and that he did not know she was a reporter.
But Sahouri said she repeatedly told officers she was a member of the media.
“I didn’t think it was a good idea to run from police officers. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. So, I put up my hands. I said, ‘I’m press, I’m press, I’m press,’ ” she said Wednesday.
'Miscarriage of justice'
The case attracted the attention of human rights and press freedom advocates, journalism schools and media companies who asked authorities to drop the charges because, they said, Sahouri was just performing the work of a reporter.
"That this trial is happening at all is a violation of free press rights and a miscarriage of justice," the Register's editorial board wrote.
Officials have maintained that journalists do not have the right to ignore dispersal orders from police, adding that a similar order had been given 90 minutes earlier.
While journalists and press freedom activists celebrated Sahouri’s acquittal, many have expressed concern that the trial reflected the erosion of press freedom in the country.
Floyd’s death sparked weeks of unrest. Journalists who were covering it sometimes became the story themselves. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, nearly 130 journalists were arrested or detained in 2020.
“That's a more than 1,200% increase from the year before. That's more than in our entire history combined. We were launched in 2017,” Kirstin McCudden, managing editor at the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, told VOA.
“There were so many journalists arrested and detained in the course of reporting that it was already just [an] unprecedented, unusual year for press freedom violations.”