An American journalist is being held in Sudan's Darfur region on charges of espionage and entering the country illegally. The case has highlighted issues of press freedom in Sudan, a nation which routinely censors independent media.
Paul Salopek, a Pulitzer-prize winning foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, was arrested in Darfur earlier this month, and charged with spying. Salopek entered Sudan from neighboring Chad.
He was on leave from the Tribune, working on an assignment for National Geographic magazine.
Both publications defended Salopek's innocence Saturday, and said they are working to secure his release. Salopek's lawyer says he has won a continuance in the case, delaying the start of the trial until September 10th.
Press freedom watchdog groups say Sudan has a history of stifling press freedom. Sudanese newspapers have, in the past, been shut down, if the government did not approve of their contents.
Nhial Boll is the editor-in-chief of the Citizen Daily newspaper. Boll says he is routinely intimidated and threatened by Sudanese security for printing news and opinion pieces that contradict the government stance.
"I think there is no freedom of press, or freedom of the media. Since there are no laws that give access to public information, it means we are still in darkness. We are supposed to have laws that give us the right to investigate ministers, check the
authorities and talk to them. People are dreaming that there is freedom of press and freedom of information, but I am not feeling that at all."
Boll says one of his photographers was arrested this week after taking pictures of the flooded Nile River, without the permission of security officials.
The British-based Sudan Organization Against Torture reported this week that a Sudanese journalist was detained and beaten by security after taking pictures of a government-sponsored forced relocation of displaced Darfuri civilians.
Slovenian presidential envoy Tomo Kriznar was recently sentenced to two years in prison on charges of spying. Kriznar had also entered Darfur from Chad and was caught taking photographs in the region.
Foreign journalists are required to obtain travel permits in the capital Khartoum, before traveling to Darfur. On occasion, Sudan has denied or delayed permits, leading some journalists to secretly enter the country via Chad.
The three-year conflict in Darfur erupted when rebels attacked government positions. Sudan is charged with arming local militias to crush the rebellion. The militias embarked on a savage campaign of rape and murder in what the U.S. calls genocide.
Boll called for Salopek's release.
"The situation is unfair. The duty of journalists is to cover the event. It is the duty of journalist to cover the war situation, the peace situation, the developments. I think there is no journalist who can really spy. This is an insult to our profession. I believe the government of Sudan should release this journalist unconditionally."
Salopek's driver and interpreter, both Chadian nationals, were also charged. He was working on an article for National Geographic on the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa.