Thursday, 26 April 2012

IPI Focus: World Press Freedom Day 2012 - The Story of Umar Cheema

‘Instead of Bowing to Tyranny, I Decided to Stand Brave and Firm’ 

By: Umar Cheema

Umar Cheema, an award-winning investigative reporter for The News, the largest English-language newspaper in Pakistan. Photo: IPI

ISLAMABAD, April 26, 2012 – How precious freedom is can better be explained by those who have suffered and struggled for it. This is what my personal experience dictates. On September 4, 2010, I was abducted. Before that, I was a free man roaming around without any care or caution. Even that fateful night, I was laughing in the company of friends sitting at a hill-top café celebrating cherished memories. Then the party was over.

On my way home in the wee hours, two vehicles surrounded my car. Men with moustaches wearing commando uniforms read a fabricated murder charge-sheet against me, pulled me out of the car and threw me into a black jeep. I was blindfolded and gagged. My mobile phone and wallet were taken away and the jeep sped to an unknown destination.

This was the most horrible incident of my life. Fear and fury flooded inside me, leaving me helpless like never before. I didn’t have any personal grudge against anybody, hence was caught off-guard.

The worst was yet to come. The black jeep entered the garage of a quiet house. I was taken upstairs to a room, stripped naked, laid down on a floor and then a beating started with a leather strap and a wooden rod. As this was being done, my hands were tied behind me and I was blindfolded. I was tortured for almost half an hour. My head and eye-brows were shaved, and pictures were taken of me in objectionable poses. During the course of the beating, I was told of the crime: my reporting.

I thought the attackers might have disputed the accuracy of what I had been writing. But they clarified that it was the accuracy that had angered them. Instead of setting the house in order, they decided to ‘fix’ me. Then I realized it was not attack on my person but also on freedom of press.

They dumped me 100 miles outside Islamabad city in the middle of a mountain range after seven to eight hours’ captivity. This release was accompanied by a warning: “If you publicise this, you will be picked up again and face worse consequences.” For me ‘worse consequences’ meant ‘death’.

At this point, I entered into yet another difficult phase of my life: Should I, or should I not, make the kidnapping and assault public? On my way home from where I was dumped, I made up my mind to speak out, come what may. It was a considered decision. Remaining silent would have meant letting the attackers infuse fear inside the journalist community and silence them one by one. But I knew that speaking could expose me to more dangers. And it did.

I experienced post-traumatic stress. I would wake up in the middle of the night, apprehensive, as if somebody was beating my back. Even a shadow would scare me. My car was chased several times. My family would remain worried until I reached home from the office. I started living under self-imposed house arrest. Now I can’t go for outings like I did before the abduction. I am no longer a free man. 

However, instead of bowing to tyranny, I decided to stand brave and firm. This crisis taught me how precious personal freedom, press freedom, being a citizen and being a journalist are. I was not abducted and tortured for pursuing personal gains. Those following that path enjoy smooth sailing.

It was not the first time I had been targeted. A car hit me twice on a chilly night in December 2004, leaving me with a compound fracture of the leg that kept me bed-ridden for the next six months. That also happened due to my reporting. That incident was followed by threatening calls asking me about the identity of sources feeding me information.  

I have a family and children. They suffer due to the troubles I face. I neither want my children to grow up as orphans nor wish my wife to become a widow. Nevertheless, I have to keep fighting for the freedom I value. It is not only for me; the fight is for the future of my beloved country. Every choice has its price and I am mindful of this fact. This price is not bigger than the cause the journalists throughout the world are struggling for. The courage one acquires is what helps one through the crisis by staying brave. Even those who lack it should fake it till they make it. 

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Umar Cheema is an award winning investigative reporter for The News, the largest English-language newspaper in Pakistan. The winner of the Daniel Pearl Journalism Fellowship in 2008, the Martha Gellhorn Special Award for Journalism in 2010 (for his fearless exposure of government corruption), the Tully Free Speech Award from Syracuse University and the Committee to Protect Journalists' International Press Freedom Award in 2011, Cheema has regularly faced death threats because of his work. In September 2010, he was kidnapped, tortured, blindfolded and handcuffed, and finally dumped outside Islamabad by masked men, who warned him not to speak about the incident. After his release, Cheema immediately went on television to tell his story. In December 2004, he was intentionally run over by a car, causing multiple fractures that left him bedridden for six months. Cheema, who writes about politics, corruption and security issues, has a masters degree in Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics. During his Daniel Pearl Fellowship, he received on-the-job training at The New York Times. Follow Umar Cheema on Twitter @UmarCheema1