He’s not a spy, he’s a reporter

ESPIONAGE is probably the most sinister charge that can be leveled against a journalist.

The superficial similarities between the daily activities of a reporter or photojournalist and those of a spy make the men and women who gather your news easy targets for false allegations -- and foreign correspondents are more vulnerable than most.

That’s what makes the case of Chicago Tribune reporter Paul Salopek, currently being held by Sudanese authorities in Darfur, a matter of great urgency. Securing his immediate release is an issue of consequence not only to his paper and its readers but also to everyone who believes that a free flow of accurate information never has been more important than it is now, when our understanding of the common good is as globalized as everything else about our lives.


Salopek, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes, was arrested by pro-government Sudanese forces earlier this month. His driver, Idriss Abdulraham Anu, and interpreter, Suleiman Abakar Moussa -- both citizens of neighboring Chad -- also were taken into custody. Saturday, during a 40-minute hearing in El Fasher, capital of Sudan’s North Darfur state, all three were charged with espionage, passing information illegally and writing “false news.” In response to a motion by the trio’s local defense attorney, their trial was delayed for two weeks.

The 44-year-old correspondent actually was on leave from the Tribune, reporting a story on sub-Saharan Africa for National Geographic. Though he and his companions were arrested three weeks ago, the paper reported Sunday that it “learned of the arrests Aug. 18. Since that time, editors at the Tribune and National Geographic have sought the release of the three men, working through political and diplomatic channels in the U.S. and overseas. The Tribune chose to report the arrests after charges were publicly filed Saturday in court.” (The Tribune and the Los Angeles Times are both owned by the Tribune Co.)

Ann Marie Lipinski, the paper’s editor, categorically denied the Sudanese allegations. Salopek, she said, “is not a spy. Our fervent hope is that the authorities in Sudan will recognize his innocence and quickly allow Paul to return home to his wife, Linda, and to his colleagues.”

Chris Johns, editor in chief of National Geographic, told the Tribune that Salopek “had no agenda other than to fairly and accurately report on the region” and cited his “deep knowledge and respect for the continent of Africa and its people.”

Illinois’ senior senator, Democratic whip Richard J. Durbin, has been working to secure the men’s release and called the charges lodged Saturday “preposterous.” Similarly, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who led a congressional delegation that visited Salopek last week, said Saturday that “this is a reporter doing what reporters do. They don’t have any designs against the government. They’re just reporting what they see.”

The writing “false news” charge leveled against Salopek suggests that someone in the Sudanese legal system is apprehensive that the reporter was doing just what Shays said he was: reporting what he sees. The government in Khartoum is under increasing international pressure to accept a larger U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur, where a dire humanitarian crisis is ongoing. In an attempt to suppress a local insurgency, the Sudanese government has mobilized Arab paramilitaries, who have attacked local villages of mostly black farmers. An estimated 2 million of them have been made refugees and more than 180,000 already have been killed or died of hunger and disease.

The Sudanese government has contested a good bit of the Western media’s reporting on Darfur, but since Salopek has yet to file a story, it’s a little difficult to see how he could have given a false account of what he saw there, as the charges allege he has. According to sources cited by the Tribune, the authorities regard his possession of two passports and satellite maps of Darfur as evidence he was engaged in espionage. It’s true that spies often use multiple passports, but they do so under different names and nationalities. Salopek simply had a duplicate of his own U.S. passport, a perfectly legal and rather common practice among correspondents. His maps were downloaded from a website accessible to anybody with a computer.

This is an unusually dangerous time for enterprising reporters. The war in Iraq has taken an unprecedented toll of the foreign and Iraqi journalists working there. Sunday, Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig of Fox News were released after nearly two weeks of captivity at the hands of thugs in the Gaza Strip. (Since their captors were apparently a criminal faction and not a government, Fox took a low-key approach to winning their release, and the rest of the media -- ignoring abuse from various right-wing commentators -- sensibly followed the network’s lead.)

The New York Times, on the other hand, mounted a vigorous campaign on behalf of one of its researchers charged by the Chinese government with possessing state secrets. A court in Beijing dismissed those charges Friday but convicted Zhao Yan of an unrelated fraud charge and sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment. Here in the United States, a variety of conservative advocates have urged the Bush administration to invoke the Espionage Act against investigative reporters who report classified information.

Spies gather information and so do reporters. Their purposes and methods, however, are utterly different, and conflating their roles for any reason is perilously wrong. There are reasons to think the Sudanese authorities may be committing that mistake. The governor of North Darfur already has called Salopek a “criminal.” Two weeks ago, the judge in his case sentenced Slovenian writer Tomo Kriznar to two years’ imprisonment for spying and reporting false information -- the same charges the American reporter and his two colleagues now face.

Saturday, a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called the charges against Salopek “trumped up,” and there’s an easy way for the Sudanese authorities to see just how right he is. Their embassy in Washington maintains a handsome and media-savvy website, but the one they ought to visit today is, where there’s an online archive of prize-winning journalism that includes Salopek’s work.

The authorities can read it for themselves, along with the Pulitzer board’s description of the stories that earned him the 2001 prize for international reporting. That citation praises Salopek’s “reporting on the political strife and disease epidemics ravaging Africa, witnessed firsthand as he traveled, sometimes by canoe, through rebel-controlled regions of the Congo.”

There is no shred of evidence that his purpose in Darfur was anything but a similar act of witness whose principal beneficiaries would be the Sudanese people.

Spies trade in secrets to the profit of their patrons; journalists trade in information to the profit of us all -- and no one has gained more from Salopek’s reporting than the people of Africa, whose frequently desperate plight demands to be as widely known and understood as possible.

In the end, that may be the most important of the many compelling reasons that the Sudanese government ought to immediately release Paul Salopek, so he can be restored to his wife, his colleagues and a world that needs more -- not less -- of his courageous brand of journalism.