Testifying in her own trial, Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri describes the moment she was arrested while covering protests against racial injustice in Des Moines on May 31, 2020. Sahouri was charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts, both simple misdemeanors.

Des Moines Register

In the fall of 2018 students at Columbia Journalism School planned a day of solidarity in support of two Reuters journalists imprisoned in Myanmar for their brave reporting about a massacre of ethnic Rohingya. At one point, dozens of students assembled on the school steps behind a long banner proclaiming “JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME.”

The student who brought the banner to the school was Andrea Sahouri.

This week, the banner came out again, this time on behalf of Sahouri herself, after her acquittal in a Des Moines trial on charges of failure to disperse and interfering with official actions. Throughout the three-day trial, journalists and press freedom advocates posted #JournalismIsNotACrime and #StandWithAndrea messages on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms, noting that Sahouri was in court just for doing her job.

From left, Isaiah Smalls, Andrea Sahouri and Isabelle Lee were the organizers of a 2018 press freedom letter-writing campaign at Columbia Journalism School, to send messages to journalists imprisoned around the world. Sahouri joined the Des Moines Register in 2019.

 (Photo: Special to the Register)

Thats exactly what Sahouri was doing, on assignment for The Des Moines Register the evening of May 31 last year. Des Moines was one of many cities where angry crowds took to the streets in reaction to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. At least 127 journalists were detained or arrested in the U.S. in 2020, the vast majority of them while covering social justice demonstrations.

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The vast majority also were let go quickly with no charge or saw their charges dropped, by prosecutors who declined to take legal action against journalists covering one of the years biggest stories. By this week, Sahouri was one of just 13 who still faced a day in court.

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We may never know why the Polk County Attorneys office chose to pursue the charges against Sahouri, when so many officials in so many other places declined to act against journalists doing their job. Some suggest police and prosecutor animosity against her employer, the Des Moines Register, could have been a factor. The Associated Press last week noted that Sahouri, who has covered law enforcement and justice issues for the paper for a year and a half, is known for building trust with crime victims and underrepresented communities. Many were baffled, AP wrote, by the months-long pursuit of her misdemeanor charges, at a time when the pandemic has left Iowa courts facing a severe backlog of felony cases.

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When she testified in the trial this week, Sahouris attorney asked her to define the role of a journalist. To serve the community, she said. To tell the truth, be honest, give the community information to live their day-to-day lives.

Ann Cooper

 (Photo: Special to the Register)

Thats a definition that journalists around the world will recognize including in Myanmar, the country that was persecuting the Reuters reporters back in 2018 when Andrea Sahouri was studying journalism.

Though the Reuters journalists were eventually released, Myanmars media face an even deeper crisis today: arrests, newsroom raids and the cancellation of licenses for news organizations that have dared to report on the militarys coup and its deadly attempts to put down street protests. So as we welcome Andrea Sahouris acquittal, let us not forget the other journalists in the US, in Myanmar, and in far too many other countries who need support with the message #JournalismIsNotACrime.

Ann Cooper is a professor emerita at Columbia Journalism School and former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists and a graduate of Iowa State University, where she studied journalism. This column originally appeared in the Des Moines Register.

Andrea Sahouri, right, and fellow Columbia University students in a Reporting class show the fruits of their postcard-writing campaign in December 2018 to send messages of support to imprisoned journalists around the world.

 (Photo: Special to the Register)

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