Reporters Without Borders hailed yesterday’s release of Chicago Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek and his two Chadian assistants, interpreter Suleiman Abakar Moussa and driver Idriss Abdulraman Anu, who were arrested in the western Darfur region on 6 August while Salopek was working on a report on the Sahel for National Geographic magazine.
Salopek’s release was negotiated directly with President Omar Al Bashir by Governor Bill Richardson of the US state of New Mexico, where Salopek lives. As a result of these negotiations, the judicial authorities in Al Fashir, the capital of North Darfur province, dropped all charges against Salopek, who was due to join Richardson in Khartoum last night.
Salopek had appeared before a court in Al Fashir on 26 August on charges of spying and illegal dissemination of information. He was also accused of entering Sudan from Chad without a visa. His trial had been scheduled to resume today.
Despite promising democratic reforms, the government has been taking a tougher stance towards the press because of the separatist rebellion in Dafur. It has now become virtually impossible for foreign journalists to get to Darfur unless they enter the country clandestinely across the border with Chad.
28.08.06 - “Ridiculous” spying charge against US journalist arrested with driver and interpreter in Darfur
Reporters Without Borders today called for the release of US journalist Paul Salopek, a correspondent of the publicly-owned Chicago Tribune daily newspaper, as well as his driver, Suleiman Abakar Moussa and his interpreter, Abdulraman Anu, who are both Chadians. Held since 6 August in Al Fashir, the capital of the western state of North Darfur, they have just been charged with spying and entering Sudan illegally.
“The Sudanese government is becoming increasingly embarrassed by what foreign journalists are reporting in Darfur, so arresting them as spies is a way to dissuade them from coming to cover the unacceptable human tragedy unfolding there,” the press freedom organisation said. “This is ridiculous and disgraceful. 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.”
Salopek was working on a report about the Sahel region for the privately-owned National Geographic magazine when he was arrested with his driver and interpreter on 6 August. He was carrying two US passports, which is not unusual for journalists who cover war zones. He also had satellite photos that anyone can download from the Internet.
When he appeared in court in Al Fashir on 26 August, he was charged with spying and “disseminating illegal information” - crimes punishable by long prison terms under the Sudanese criminal code. He was also accused of entering Sudan without a visa. At the request of his lawyer, the presiding judge adjourned his trial until 10 September.
An Al Fashir court sentenced Slovenian writer, photographer and human rights activist Tomo Kriznar on 14 August to two years in prison and a fine of 500,000 dinars (1,934 euros) for spying, publishing false information and entering Sudan without a visa. His lawyer has appealed. Kriznar had recently been acting as a special adviser to his country’s president.
Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir undertook to promote democratisation, the rule of law and freedoms on 11 July 2005, when he announced the repeal of emergency laws in the presence of UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, several African presidents, and many senior European and US officials.
Thereafter, the authorities eased the pressure on the Sudanese media. No case of government censorship was registered and it was rare for journalists to be arrested. But it became difficult for foreign journalists to get a visa for Sudan and more and more of them began entering the country across the land border with Chad.
The international pressure over Darfur has led to a return to a tougher line towards the domestic press. Naser Eldien Ahmed Altayeb of the privately-owned, Arabic-language daily Al-Ayam, was arrested at 2 a.m. on 16 August and was badly beaten by about 20 police officers using batons. He had just written about an incident in Dar-al-Salaam (30 km south Khartoum) in which refugees from Darfur and southern Sudan were evicted from the land they had been occupying for 20 years after it was sold to an Egyptian real estate developer. He is being treated in the Khartoum university hospital.
Four journalists working for privately-owned dailies - Mougahed Abdalla of Ray Alshab, Abdoulgasiem Farahna of Alowan, Moutaz Mahjoob of Al-Adwaa, and Mouheb Maher of Al-Sudani - were arrested the day before and held for nearly five hours by police in the northern locality of Marawi when they tried to visit the victims of flooding that occurred on 10 August. The police said they had received orders not to let journalists into the flood-hit area.