Wielding a Muzzle

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

TO FIND THE TRUTH on the genocide in Darfur, reporters have sneaked across Sudan's border from Chad without visas. Often there's been no other way to witness and report on the death and desperation in the region.

About three weeks ago, Paul Salopek, a renowned Chicago Tribune reporter, did just that. A militia group captured him and turned him over to Sudanese authorities, who held him incommunicado for more than a week. Then, instead of simply deporting him, as it has done with other foreigners caught in Darfur without a visa, Sudan's government charged Mr. Salopek with espionage and writing "false news."

It is plain that Mr. Salopek isn't a spy. He is a veteran Africa correspondent who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize. When he crossed into Darfur, he was on assignment for National Geographic magazine, researching an article on Africa's Sahel region.

Also plain is why Sudan might raise such a preposterous charge. If it can discourage reporters from visiting, it can diminish worldwide attention to government-caused suffering in Darfur. A press blackout now would be particularly convenient. The State Department claims that the regime is planning a new offensive in northern Darfur. In preparation, government-backed militias are launching attacks on foreign aid workers, and officials in Khartoum are resisting the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force to replace African Union troops. And the killings and rapes go on.

If the Sudanese regime manages to eject aid workers, peacekeepers and journalists from Darfur, the world will have to rely on unconfirmed, second-hand reports of refugees and misleading pronouncements from Khartoum for information on the genocide. Focusing international attention on the humanitarian disaster in the region -- which may soon get even worse -- will be even more difficult.

We hope that quiet pressure from Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi E. Frazer, who is trying to convince Khartoum to allow U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur, and from Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), both of whom have toured Africa recently, will prevail on the Sudanese to drop their charges. If not, louder pressure from higher-ranking officials may be necessary.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company