High Anxiety

El Fasher, capital of Sudan’s North Darfur state, is a place where, according to a recent New York Times article, the “Ilyushin cargo planes fly in day after day, their holds packed with the stuff of war: troops, trucks, bombs and guns.” All-out war in Darfur seems imminent between government troops and rebels, and if it comes, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to die.

The duty of journalism at a moment so dark is simple–to be there. The Tribune’s Paul Salopek arrived in early August and was immediately arrested, along with his Chadian interpreter and driver. Since August 6 he’s been held in an El Fasher cell by the Sudanese government, accused of entering Sudan from Chad without a visa (which no one disputes), of writing “false news,” and, most ominously, of espionage. The “false news” charge is apparently based on past stories about Sudan, the espionage charge on aerial maps he brought with him. On September 10 he appears in court. The Tribune will cover this hearing any way it can, but public editor Timothy McNulty told me Tuesday that Sudan had yet to issue the paper any visas.

On July 29 the Tribune published Salopek’s “A Tank of Gas, a World of Trouble,” a massive study of oil’s troubled journey from fields in Nigeria, Venezuela, and Iraq into the gas tanks at a South Elgin Marathon station. In Chicago for the final editing, he and his friend Stephen Franklin, the Tribune’s labor reporter, had dinner together and then he went on leave: he was headed to Chad to begin an assignment for National Geographic, his old magazine, on the Sahel–the drought-plagued swath of Africa just south of the Sahara.

Within days Salopek was behind bars. Few people at the Tribune knew that until publisher David Hiller announced his arrest by e-mail on August 26. “As you know, Paul is not a spy, but only one of the world’s finest journalists,” Hiller wrote. “Ann Marie Lipinski and many others within the newsroom have been working around the clock for more than a week to get Paul back safely, and these efforts continue. Please hold good thoughts for our colleague.”

The Tribune is working with National Geographic to get Salopek released. “We talk with them every day at least once a day,” McNulty told me, “and we e-mail them throughout the day and often the night.” A Tribune article Sunday offered some idea of the paper’s creativity: the governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, flew to Washington at the request of Lipinski and met with the Sudanese ambassador, who happens to be a friend.

When a reporter’s in trouble, a large, compartmentalized, bureaucratized institution such as the Tribune becomes small and tribal. “It’s one of the few times you feel combined and collected,” says Franklin. Kerry Luft, the foreign editor, told me, “There hasn’t been a day when I don’t field some questions about what’s happening.”

Reporter William Mullen sat at a nearby desk when Salopek joined the Tribune in 1996. “I used to kid him he had things ass backward,” says Mullen. “Most people here are grinding away wishing they could get a shot at the National Geographic, and he came here from there. But he’s a very serious guy. He said really the reason he came was he got so sick of waiting years sometimes for something he’d written to get into print. He wanted a faster turnover.”

Salopek wasn’t well-known, Mullen says, because he wasn’t around the paper much. “So it isn’t like when Sean Toolin was murdered [in Lebanon in 1981], or when [Philip] Caputo was wounded in Beirut around 1975, where there were a couple dozen people who were really close friends. [Caputo was shot while representing the Tribune. He recovered. Toolin, a former Tribune reporter, was freelancing when he was killed.] But there’s still an awful lot of anxiety for the guy. I hear a lot of people asking Tim McNulty or anyone wandering down the aisle, ‘Is there anything new?'”

Reporters measure each other by the stories they do and by what they are willing and able to do to get them. “Salopek’s work is so good and his reporting is so thorough and the things he does to get his stories are so extreme that he’s probably the most respected reporter in the building,” travel writer Alan Solomon told me. “The rest of us are hacks by comparison. I was doing a travel story in Northern Ireland in the mid-80s, and I remember asking the woman who ran the bed-and-breakfast, is there an area I should not go to? And she said, ‘Don’t go to Shankill Road.’ I immediately went to Shankill Road, and I got pelted by stones. But that doesn’t compare to guys like Tim McNulty who have been to serious war zones, or Liz Sly, or Salopek. These are people I wish I had the guts to follow their lead.”

These days Mullen writes about zoos and museums, but in the 70s he won two Pulitzers at the Tribune, one for an undercover investigation of vote fraud and the other for a series of articles on famine in Africa and India. Africa isn’t a part of the world that reporters form long lines to cover, but the Tribune has distinguished itself there. Salopek also has won two Pulitzers at the Tribune, the second, in 2001, for reporting on the wars and diseases ravaging the continent.

Salopek’s arrest “gave me the willies,” Mullen told me. “I remember being in parts of India where you had to have a military pass to go, and I didn’t–but I had to go. It was pretty scary, because you know if they stop you you’ll probably end up in a dank jail for a while.”

And the Sudan isn’t India.

“Oh, yeah, it’s far more hostile to the press, and to the U.S. press in particular.”

I asked Mullen about his worst moments. “I was arrested by the IRA one night in Belfast because nobody knew who I was, arrested by–I’m not sure who it was–in southern Lebanon in 1978 when Israel invaded,” Mullen said. “They hauled me to a Syrian army post. That was one of the hairiest assignments I ever had. And Lebanon was much worse when Sean was murdered there.

“They don’t send me anymore,” Mullen continued. “I volunteered to go to Afghanistan when that started. Around Christmastime I thought, well, they’ve got some people who haven’t had any relief. I’ll go and be a relief type. I’d been in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s. I saw both sides of that war. I have a lot of experience in war coverage. But I can’t run as fast as I used to. Anyway, they thought for 15 minutes or so, but they never sent me.

“Once in a while I sit down with people who have been over to Iraq and listen to what’s going on–the reporters coming in and out, photographers–and I’m pretty sure Iraq is worse than anything I ever saw. The whole thing in the Middle East is so volatile and so hard to know–you don’t know who you’re running into. Caputo ran into a couple of teenage punks with AK-47s, and they were just showing their macho, I guess, and they shot him.”

“The editors are being very careful and not sharing a lot,” Stephen Franklin told me, when I asked him what it’s been like at work since Salopek was arrested. “You worry about him. You worry a great deal. If you’ve ever been in those places–it raises questions about what could be.” Franklin can imagine what could be. The Tribune has sent him to the Middle East, where he’s been “interrogated by police, threatened, things like that.” He told me that McNulty, a former foreign editor, was playing a “quite important role” in coordinating the Tribune’s response to Salopek’s arrest. “He worked a long time overseas. Because of his demeanor and savvy he’s very good at thinking calmly and rationally, pulling things together. When I was overseas I always felt very comfortable knowing Tim was thinking about us.”

Franklin reads Arabic, and McNulty asked him to read the Sudanese papers online for whatever he could pick up. Franklin does that every day. “I haven’t seen much, some oblique references,” he says.

I called McNulty, and wound up speaking to him and to Luft at the same time. “This has focused all of our attention and a lot of energy from all across the paper,” McNulty said, “not just in the editorial department, but from the top executives on down.” He and Luft were cordial and guarded. When I asked about conditions at the jail they said they had no firsthand knowledge and dropped the subject.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rebecca Hale|National Geographic.