Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Salopek sits in a Sudanese jail, charged with espionage and reporting “false news.” Basically his crime was sneaking across the border to report on Darfur. (Reporters need to sneak in, because the Sudanese government doesn’t want the press to expose how it supports the militias behind the atrocities.)
That he’s won the Pulitzer twice speaks to his skill as a reporter and writer. He’s also a great guy, as anyone who’s ever had even a passing acquaintance with him will tell you. A dozen or so years ago, my dad, then an editor at the National Geographic, hired Paul into a staff writing job, a hire that still makes dad feel like a genius, as he likes to joke. The position in question was mostly a desk job and Paul quickly outgrew it. He went to the Chicago Tribune in 1996 and got into the field. Over the last decade he won his Pulitzers for his Tribune reporting, and has written lyrical, probing features for the Geographic, for whom he was on assignment when arrested by the Sudanese thugs. As his former Tribune colleague Ken Armstrong points out in this moving piece, Paul’s known for chasing the tough story, the dangerous story, the story on the downtrodden and ignored:
He’s told stories from Africa, Afghanistan, Asia and the Balkans, stories about refugees, rebels and victims of war, about pirates, poachers, gunrunners and killers, about a child in Ethiopia forced to marry at age 7 and a 13-year-old schoolgirl in Angola tortured for being a witch. He’s told stories through hardship and will, with datelines like: THE MOUNTAINS OF WESTERN KOSOVO; THE SHOMALI PLAIN, Afghanistan; THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS OF ETHIOPIA.
The State Department has intervened on Paul’s behalf, and I’m sure the Tribune, the Geographic, and the CPJ are doing whatever they can to ensure his release.
Paul didn’t let his success go to his head. So I’m sure he’d be the first to point out that his fate is inexorably linked to other journalists doing dangerous work, often without such large, powerful institutions behind them. In reporting on Paul’s situation yesterday, NPR noted that while he’s been moved to a relatively decent jail, a Slovenian filmmaker who faced the same charges has been sentenced to two years, and is being held in what sounds like an absolute hell hole. Paul’s driver and interpreter, both Chadians, have also been arrested. The trial for the three of them is scheduled for September 10th.