Iowa reporter acquitted in case seen as attack on press rights

An Iowa jury on Wednesday acquitted a journalist who was pepper-sprayed and arrested by police while covering a protest in a case that critics have derided as an attack on press freedom and an abuse of prosecutorial discretion.

The jury found Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri not guilty on misdemeanor charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts. It also acquitted her former boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, of the same charges after a three-day trial in Des Moines.

The verdict is an embarrassing outcome for the office of Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, which pursued the charges despite widespread condemnation from advocates for a free press and human rights.

Officer says he failed to record arrest of Iowa journalist

Those advocates, ranging from Sahouri’s bosses at the Register to Amnesty International, argued that Sahouri was wrongly arrested while doing her job by covering racial injustice protests in Des Moines last May.

Prosecutors argued that Sahouri and Robnett didn’t comply with police orders to leave the chaotic scene outside of a mall and interfered with an officer who pepper-sprayed and arrested Sahouri, who was on assignment for the newspaper.

Sahouri, 25, immediately identified herself as a reporter but was nevertheless subjected to what she called “extremely painful” pepper spray blasts and jailed. Robnett, 24, said he was sprayed after telling the officer that Sahouri was a Register journalist.

Sahouri was the first working U.S. journalist to face a criminal trial since 2018, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. Although more than 125 U.S. journalists were arrested or detained last year, the vast majority were not charged or had their charges dismissed.