A Journalist Goes on Trial in Des Moines

And an AP journalist is arrested in Myanmar

I’m Scott Nover. Welcome back to Pressing, a newsletter about press freedom. If you haven’t yet subscribed, you can do so here and receive this letter in your inbox every Tuesday morning.

This is the 67th issue of Pressing and it’s great to have you with me. Please send me feedback, thoughts, suggestions, and tips at sgnover@gmail.com.


A Journalist Goes on Trial in Des Moines

Andrea Sahouri occupies one line in my spreadsheet. She’s entry #58 of 306. “Arrested and pepper sprayed after identifying herself as press,” I noted quickly, linking to a USA Today story about her detention in Des Moines, IA.

From the comfort of my parents’ home in South Jersey, I compiled a list of press freedom abuses—for lack of a better term—perpetrated during the George Floyd protests, which swept across the country this summer. I wasn’t out in the streets, covering the boiling anger of Black Americans and their allies, but I used my perch to watch those who were.

When protests erupt in America, we see a glimpse into what other countries experience daily: It’s not safe to be a journalist. When you’re reporting from a protest, there’s often little distinguishing a professional journalist from a protester. Some would argue that’s a good thing. Journalists and protesters are exercising different First Amendment rights, but the former group is also seen as an extension of the public. I see the difference as microcosmic of a larger problem: If the police are subjecting journalists to rubber bullets, batons and arrests, then imagine what those without press credentials are experiencing.

Here’s what I knew about Sahouri at the time, according to the USA Today report:

Late Sunday, Des Moines police arrested reporter Andrea Sahouri, of the Des Moines Register, part of the USA TODAY Network, for failure to disperse while she was covering the George Floyd demonstration at a local mall that turned violent.

In a video apparently recorded in a police transport vehicle while still at the Merle Hay Mall and then posted on Twitter, Sahouri said police sprayed her in the face with pepper spray after she identified herself as a member of the media. "I'm press. I'm press. I'm press," she said she told police. 

KCCI earlier showed Sahouri sitting on a curb with her hands zip tied behind her back. It appeared she was wailing in pain from the pepper spray. 

Another reporter who was with her at the event was not arrested but shared the same account with editors before Sahouri posted her video on Twitter.

Sahouri was released hours later and charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts.

One distinction between the public and the press often comes through carveouts for press to stay in a location after curfews or other administrative orders. Sahouri was not wearing press credentials when she was arrested for “failure to disperse” but she repeatedly identified herself as press, she says.

Bewilderingly, assistant Polk County attorney Bradley Kinkade argued in court that Sahouri’s press status is “irrelevant to her charges.”

Readers of this newsletter: I don’t need to tell you why these charges are problematic. News-gathering is an essential part of journalism. Journalists need to be free to report on public gatherings and government power.

“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,” the Des Moines Register’s editorial board wrote two weeks ago. “When reporters are arrested, assaulted or otherwise prevented from doing their jobs, it’s not an attack on just a single journalist or a media company. It’s an attack on everyone's rights to be informed and to hold those in power accountable for their actions.”

For me, it’s the indifference. The prosecutors in this case do not care that a journalist was arrested for doing her job. That is one of the most troubling things of all.

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The Louisville Courier Journal ceased printing locally last week, as owners Gannett consolidated its printing operation to a hub in Indianapolis, IN.


More Trouble in Myanmar

Associated Press photojournalist Thein Zaw was arrested on Feb. 27 while covering a protest of the recent military coup in Myanmar. Five other journalists—one freelancer and staffers at the outlets Myanmar Now, Myanmar Photo Agency, 7Day News and Zee Kwet—have also been arrested and charged with violating a “public order law.”

Does this sound familiar? Amid the Rohingya genocide in the country, two Reuters reporters, U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe, were arrested and sentenced under a government secrets statute in 2017. The two weren’t released until 2019.

But the current charges sound even more similar to Andrea Sahouri’s circumstance in Iowa.

As we’ve discussed, the accumulation of government power is intricately linked with stifling speech and journalism. That’s true in Myanmar and that’s true in America.


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