Crossposted from the European Tribune.

Tribune correspondent charged as spy in Sudan

Paul Salopek, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, was charged with espionage and two other criminal counts in a Sudanese court Saturday, three weeks after he was detained by pro-government forces in the war-torn province of Darfur.

Salopek, 44, who was on a freelance assignment for National Geographic magazine, was arrested with two Chadian citizens, his interpreter and driver. If convicted, they could be imprisoned for years.

He entered the country without a valid visa.  Which is not a good thing.  But it’s not proof of espionage either.  

The charges come amid increasing signs that diplomatic efforts to resolve the continuing crisis in Darfur may be foundering. Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer, who has called the situation in Darfur dire, is leading a mission to Khartoum this week that she hopes will persuade the Sudanese government to accept an expanded United Nations peacekeeping force in the region.

A spokesman for the State Department said the agency had no immediate statement on the case.

Aides said Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who is traveling through Africa, has been in close contact with diplomats working on Salopek’s case. Obama is scheduled to travel next weekend to an area near the Chad-Sudan border.

Diplomats say it is difficult to get a clear read on the case and its possible outcome. The presiding judge in Salopek’s case on Aug. 14 sentenced Slovenian writer and activist Tomo Kriznar to two years in prison on charges of spying and publishing false information. Kriznar admitted entering the country without a visa but denied the spying charge. His attorneys are appealing.

Earlier this month, the same judge ordered the deportation of a 22-year-old American college student who had been detained in Darfur.

Salopek’s arrest is one more case in an international trend of charges against journalists. A Beijing court on Friday dismissed a state secrets charge against a researcher for The New York Times but sentenced him to three years in prison on a lesser, unrelated fraud charge.

Salopek reported from Sudan for a 2003 National Geographic story titled “Shattered Sudan: Drilling for Oil, Hoping for Peace.” Sources said Sudanese authorities have singled out that story in their case against Salopek, in part because he described entering rebel-held territory in southern Sudan without official permission.

Salopek’s most recent work for the Tribune was a July 30 special section called A tank of gas, a world of trouble.”  Based on Salopek’s reporting from four continents, the report documented the United States’ addiction to oil.

To be honest, this type of thing, journalists being charged with spying or some wrong doing by hostile foreign governments, is of marginal concern to me, as it seems to be par for the course.  And there are just sooooo many things to be outraged about these days; there is only enough energy for so many issues.  

But there are several factors which make this incident more curious to me than your average persecution of journalists stories.

1. The special article he wrote, “A tank of gas, a world of trouble,” was some of the best journalism I have ever seen in my short life.  And was the topic of some discussion at European Tribune.  For those who have not read it, it traces the oil in a tank of gas being put into a suburban SUV back to where it originated, and along the way juxtaposing the lives of individuals and the socio-economic situations in the regions at every point along the way, from oil barons to people who work the night shift at the gas station, from Nigeria and Iraq and Venezuela to New Orleans and the vast empty American Heartland.  And the way all these people’s lives are affected by the oil industry.  If you have not read it yet, I HIGHLY recommend it.  It reads like a novel.

2. In the U.S. and over at ET there has been increasing discussion about sending troops to Darfur.  I recently wrote that it’s easier to ignore Darfur than Lebanon, in part because the situation in Darfur doesn’t have a great affect on the outside world.  So I was wrong.  I’m sure these types of things are not new in Darfur (a vaguely remember some retribution -kidnapping?- committed against some NGO’s last year.)   I’m not suggesting this will result in intervention, but the government seems to be egging us on.  One more excuse is one more step in that direction.

3. Tin Foil Hat time!  I’m not presenting this as anything but the product of my own imagination.  But when I read Salopek’s article in the Tribune, I immediately thought, “How did they let him get away with this?”  I think that just speaks to the level of self-censorship, the tight grip corporate interests, and the generally poor quality of “journalism” in America media today  So if I were writing a movie I think I’d have some side plot where the big oil people are in collusion with the Sudanese gov’t to put this man away.  I haven’t seen Syriana.  Maybe I should and get this silliness out of my system.

Lastly, if you are like me, you think: “What can I do?”  I would say just read that article and recommend it to all your friends and family.  I suppose if you are really jonesing to help this guy, you could contact Senators Obama and Durbin with your concern.  But they do seem to be on top of this. Also, here’s the link to Reporters without Borders

It’s always about oil, isn’t it?

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