By R.A. Bloomfield
April 22, 2021
In May 2020, police pepper sprayed and detained Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri while she was covering a Black Lives Matter protest. Body cam footage of the incident shows Sahouri blinded by pepper spray, repeatedly telling officers that she is a journalist. Sahouri was subsequently charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts, charges carrying penalties of up to thirty days in jail and a $600 fine.
Sahouri stood on trial, where she was acquitted by a jury. Her employer, the Des Moines Register, paid for her legal defense. National and international civil liberties organizations criticized the state’s decision to pursue prosecution even after it was made clear that Sahouri was a journalist reporting on the protests. Amnesty International called the choice to pursue charges “outrageous.”
While police arrests of journalists limit reporters’ capacity to accurately report on events at protests, usually prosecutors subsequently decline to pursue charges against journalists. In the past three years, however, working journalists have increasingly stood trial. As of early March 2021, 14 journalists were still facing charges.
Arrests of journalists are concentrated around Black Lives Matter protests. In August 2020, journalist Kian Kelley-Chung was arrested in Washington D.C. while covering Black Lives Matters protests. Kelley-Chung was caught in a police kettle. He explained that he was a journalist, but police arrested him and seized his camera equipment and cell phone anyway. Kelley-Chung is Black; his white film partner was not arrested. Being arrested while doing his job took a mental health toll on Kelley-Chung. The 23-year-old reporter described experiencing anxiety attacks when he returned to journalism. He described becoming aware of unsettling parallels between his coverage of police brutality and the injustice he experienced at the hands of law enforcement while doing his job. Kelley-Chung is currently suing Washington D.C. Metro Police for violating the First and Fourth Amendments.
In 2020, arrests of journalists were up 1200% from 2019. Most of these arrests occurred at Black Lives Matter protests, with particular spikes in the arrests of freelance journalists. Especially in coverage of racial justice protests, freelance journalists can play a crucial role in covering protest objectives and communities affected. Mainstream media coverage of Black Lives Matter is mixed, and tends to focus on looting, rioting, and police brutality rather than the concrete material aims of the Black Lives Matter movement. Journalists from mainstream media and independent media alike have been arrested in a variety of contexts, but the spike of arrests related to Black Lives Matter protests is a particularly concerning trend because reporting from many, diverse journalists is needed to convey accurate information.
When journalists are arrested for doing their jobs, communities lose access to the information they need to hold their governments accountable and live an informed civic life. Arresting journalists is profoundly antagonistic to functioning democracy. U.S. law enforcement must be held accountable to uphold First Amendment freedoms central to our democracy.