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Trial Begins For Reporter Who Was Arrested Despite Identifying Herself As Media

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Last May, Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri was pepper-sprayed, restrained with zip ties and arrested while covering social justice protests after police killed George Floyd. Today, her trial began in Iowa. Free-press advocates say it could have a chilling effect on freedom of the press in the U.S. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters has been covering the trial today.

Hey there, Clay.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: So set the stage for us. What exactly happened to Sahouri last May?

MASTERS: On May 31, Sahouri was covering one of the many protests in Des Moines that followed the murder of George Floyd. This one was outside a mall on the north side of town. It was very tense. She did not have a press badge on her. Another journalist from the Des Moines Register was with her and was not arrested. Sahouri was able to record herself on a smartphone soon after she was apprehended by police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREA SAHOURI: And then, we went around the corner. And I was saying, you know, I'm press, I'm press, I'm press. Police deliberately took me, sprayed pepper spray on my face and then put me in zip - zip ties? - what are they called? - zip ties. I'm in the back of a cop car right now.

MASTERS: And now, Sahouri, as well as her former boyfriend who was with her, are charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts. The charges have continued even as many free-press advocates from, like, Amnesty International to the Committee to Protect Journalists have called on authorities to drop the charges.

KELLY: Well, and what exactly are they saying as they call for these charges to be dropped? Because we should note, this is unusual for a journalist in the street doing their job to be charged or to be treated in this way.

MASTERS: Right. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has said that 127 journalists were arrested in 2020, the vast majority at protests. That compares to just nine such arrests the previous year. Now, she is just one of a few who currently face criminal charges. Many, including the executive editor of the Des Moines Register, said they fear that the charges alone could have a chilling effect on the free press. Now, the defense - excuse me - the prosecution has said that Sahouri's journalist status is irrelevant to her charges.

KELLY: Tell us more about how day one of the trial went.

MASTERS: There was a jury selection - three men, three women - opening statements were given. The attorney who gave the opening statement for the prosecution said that there are just three questions the jury has to answer - were they told to disperse, did they disperse and did they pull away? The defense attorney in his opening statement made the case that Sahouri was assaulted while doing her job. And then there was a lot of talk about the arrest itself and responding officers' body camera footage.

KELLY: What else did we learn about that body camera footage and what happened that day?

MASTERS: Well, the police officers who arrested Sahouri and her ex-boyfriend testified. And I mean, remember, these protests were very chaotic protests. There was a lot going on. One officer was talking about how it felt like he was in a movie, like something he had never experienced. And an important detail here was that an officer said he didn't get body camera footage of the arrest itself. When he got out of the vehicle, he thought he turned the camera on to activate it, but it was not on. And this trial is expected to be a quick one. They're expecting this trial to be wrapped up tomorrow. So we should get an answer pretty soon about how this is going to progress.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, Clay.

MASTERS: Yeah. Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio talking to us about the trial in the case of Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.