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The free press battle was already fought and won

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Racial Injustice-Reporters Trial

Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri testifies during her trial after being arrested while reporting on a protest last summer, Tuesday, March 9, 2021, at the Drake University Legal Clinic, in Des Moines, Iowa. 

It was a victory for the First Amendment in a case that never should have been brought in the first place.

A jury in Des Moines on Wednesday acquitted a journalist who was pepper-sprayed and arrested by police while covering protests of racial injustice in May. The arrest of Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri and her ex-boyfriend Spenser Robnett deservedly drew international condemnation as an attack on press freedoms.

According to the Associated Press, more than 100 groups called for the dismissal of charges, but prosecutors aggressively pursued them anyway.

Remarking on the case, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council stated that “All Iowans should be troubled by this abuse of prosecutorial discretion. The Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment for this very purpose — to allow the media to scrutinize the actions of law officers.”

Amnesty International, which usually has its hands full fighting for human rights denied by oppressive authoritarian regimes, found it necessary to weigh in on similar repression in what is supposedly the world's foremost defender of freedom of speech.

“Reporting at a protest as a working member of the media is not a crime, and treating it as one constitutes a human rights violation."

“... Journalists must be able to report on scenes of protest without fear of retribution. The right of the media to do their work is essential to the right of freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly. "

But fear of retribution or physical attack increasingly accompanies reporters covering newsworthy events. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 126 journalists were arrested or detained in 2020, compared with nine in 2019. Sahouri is one of 16 to face criminal charges.

Among those arrested or injured in 2020:

  • Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier staff writer Jeff Reinitz was struck in the back of the head by a demonstrator while covering a protest in Waterloo late on the night of June 2.
  • Freelance photojournalist Richard Cummings was documenting protests in Worcester, Massachusetts, on June 1 when he was pepper-sprayed, hit with police projectiles and arrested.
  • Videographers Sean Beckner-Carmitchel and Vishal Singh were arrested Nov. 4 in Los Angeles while documenting election-related protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • Reporter Linda Tirado was blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet fired by police during protests in Minnesota in May.
  • CNN journalist Omar Jimenez, and his crew were arrested live on camera while covering a protest in Minneapolis. NBC journalist Ali Velshi was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet, also live on camera. Donald Trump called what happened to Velshi “the most beautiful thing.”

Indeed, Trump was a chief driver of hostility toward the media in recent years. The former president made stoking hatred of reporters a staple of his rallies, and many journalists found the atmosphere at those rallies threatening.

Trump posted 2,520 tweets degrading journalists and the media before Twitter permanently suspended him Jan. 8.

Just as disturbing as Andrea Sahouri's shabby treatment by Polk County prosecutors was her treatment at the hands of police.

Again according to The Associated Press, Sahouri, 25, testified that on the night of her arrest she put up her hands and immediately identified herself as a reporter but was nonetheless subjected to what she called “extremely painful” pepper spray blasts and cuffed with zip ties. Robnett, 24, said he was sprayed and handcuffed after telling the officer that Sahouri was a journalist.

Another Register reporter, Katie Akin, was near Sahouri and quickly informed police they were journalists. Akin was told to leave but was not arrested.

The arresting officer claimed Robnett tried to pull Sahouri out of his custody and that Sahouri briefly resisted arrest. He acknowledged he had failed to record the arrest on his body camera and did not try to recover the video later, in violation of Des Moines Police Department policy.

Footage from another officer’s camera was played in court Tuesday in which Sahouri could be heard saying: “I’m just doing my job. I’m a journalist.” According to Radio Iowa, the Freedom of the Press Foundation called that “a powerful scene in the courtroom … showing Sahouri clearly identified herself as a journalist.”

Other video captured by a responding officer showed Sahouri in pain, temporarily blinded by the pepper spray and repeatedly telling officers that she was a journalist doing her job. Nonetheless, authorities put her in a police van and took her to jail.

There's a reason freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, alongside our most important freedoms like the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Representative democracy is impossible without a free press. Thomas Jefferson declared: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

The press is the watchdog that holds the powerful accountable, always on guard to expose any misdeeds by the government. When government is allowed to muzzle that watchdog, We the People are left in the dark, unaware of corruption, scandal and abuses of power.

Wednesday's jury decision was a victory for the people and a victory for freedom. But we shouldn't have to battle our own government to retain our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

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