National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

Spying Charge Brought Against "Geographic" Reporter in Sudan

Ted Chamberlain
Updated August 28, 2006
 
On assignment for National Geographic magazine in Africa, U.S.
journalist Paul Salopek was charged with espionage and other crimes on
Saturday by a Sudanese court—charges that could land him in prison
for years.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent had been reporting on the Sahel—the semi-arid southern fringe of the Sahara that stretches nearly the width of Africa.

Three weeks ago Sudanese forces in Darfur Province captured him and his driver, Idriss Abdulrahman Anu, and interpreter, Suleiman Abakar. Both are from neighboring Chad (map of Africa).

(Both National Geographic News and National Geographic magazine are parts of the National Geographic Society.)

At the time of his arrest, Salopek, who is on leave from the Chicago Tribune, had been carrying publicly available maps of Darfur and two United States passports, which Sudanese officials consider indications that he was spying, according to sources close to the investigation.

Traveling with multiple passports is legal and even common among reporters looking to shuttle among several countries without arousing suspicion.

"As one who has worked in Africa for more than 15 years, I have two passports," said Chris Johns, Editor in Chief and photographer for National Geographic magazine.

"There are many reasons for that. For example, during apartheid days, if I needed to cover South Africa, it was not in my best interest [when entering black-controlled African countries] to have a South Africa stamp in my passport," said Johns, speaking from his home in Virginia.

He added that the charges against Salopek are "false."

Repeatedly extolling the 44-year-old reporter's integrity, skill, and professionalism, Johns said Salopek "would never in any circumstances be involved in espionage. He is not a spy."

Similar sentiments came today from Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski. "Our colleague and dear friend, Paul Salopek, is one of the most accomplished and admired journalists of our time. He is not a spy," she said in a statement.

(Related photos: Surviving Darfur: African Refugee Life.)

Day in Court

In addition to espionage, the charges announced by a judge in the town of El Fasher in the province of North Darfur today include conveying false news, reporting official documents, and entering Sudan without a visa (map of Sudan).

Salopek's lawyers filed a motion for a continuance. The motion was granted, and the trial will resume on September 10.

The attorneys said that the charges were serious and that they needed more time to prepare Salopek's defense. They also argued that their client could not receive a fair trial in North Darfur, due to the local governor's public judgments about Salopek's guilt in the case.

During today's hearing, the judge ordered the governor and the press to refrain from communicating such allegations.

Neither Salopek's attorneys nor National Geographic Society officials nor Salopek himself have been told what the basis of the criminal espionage and other charges are, other than the official references to Sudanese statutes in the hearing, National Geographic Society Executive Vice President Terry Adamson said.

Shaky Ground

Sudan is the site of seemingly intractable conflict between pro-government fighters and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). (See a photo of SPLA rebels loading a tripod-mounted machine gun.) The country is also home to a fraction of the Sahel—the sub-Saharan belt Salopek was covering for National Geographic when he was taken into custody.

Asked whether the magazine had directed Salopek to enter Sudan, Johns said, "As a person in the field, Paul is highly responsible and highly self-sufficient. He would be in contact with us, but. … in the field a story plan develops and evolves, and a good reporter follows that."

It was when Salopek did not make a scheduled August 17 contact with his editor that Johns and others became suspicious.

"It was completely out of character that he would miss an appointment," Johns said. "That's when we stepped into high gear" and began trying to track Salopek down.

Johns, who this week spoke with Salopek by phone, said the reporter sounded "resolute, because he knows he's innocent of the charges."

Salopek has had other visitors in person, among them a U.S. congressional delegation.

"He had a very gentle presence and he was very appreciative of our being there," Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays told the Associated Press.

"We just told him we would pass on to his wife that he loved her very much and he was looking forward to seeing her."

Reason to Believe?

This month the judge overseeing Salopek's case ordered a U.S. photographer deported. And on August 14 the same judge sentenced a Slovenian writer and activist to two years in jail on two of the same charges that have been brought against Salopek: spying and disseminating false news.

Still, National Geographic Editor Johns finds reason for hope in today's 40-minute hearing, which he called "very professional."

But the National Geographic Society doesn't appear to be taking any chances.

"We have been and are working closely with many official and unofficial channels inside and outside of Sudan to help secure Paul's release," Executive Vice President Adamson said. "We have hired highly qualified and eminent Sudanese attorneys to represent Paul, and we have worked seamlessly with the Chicago Tribune."

Editor Johns added, "We want Paul back in the U.S. with his wife and family and his colleagues as soon as possible. We're concerned about his safety, and we appeal to the government of Sudan to return him home safely."

Salopek's employers aren't the only parties coming to his defense.

"This is ridiculous and disgraceful," Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. "Salopek and his assistants are media workers who were acting in strict accordance with the rules of their profession. They should be freed at once."

Joel Campagna, Mideast program coordinator of the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists, also issued an appeal for Salopek's freedom.

"We view these charges as a grave threat to press freedom and call on the Sudanese authorities to see to it that they are dismissed and that our colleague is set free," he said in a statement.

U.S. Senator Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, is currently touring Africa. He told the Associated Press yesterday that the U.S. State Department had assured him that Salopek's case was a high priority.

"I expect the U.S. government to take this with the utmost seriousness," Obama said.

Editor's note: See our September 1 update, "Spying Charges: Sudan President to Consider 'Geographic' Reporter's Case."

Free Email News Updates
Best Online Newsletter, 2006 Codie Awards

Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).

 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.