Pakistani journalist won't abandon free speech

As winner of the Tully Center honor, Umar Cheema says 'staying silent was not an option' following his abduction.

He was abducted, stripped naked and tortured for holding the Pakistani government accountable for its commitments. Umar Cheema’s life was put in jeopardy on Sept. 4, 2010, because of his investigative journalism. It also earned him a free speech award Thursday evening at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

“That was the day when my freedom was robbed,” Cheema said in a discussion with Professor Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University. The center gives an annual award to a journalist who has faced a free speech threat.

“I do stories that people are afraid of doing.”
- Umar Cheema

Cheema's freedom wasn’t robbed for long. Driving home from what seemed to be an unspeakable experience, he wondered if he should stay silent or speak up. The only option, he knew, was to speak up. Cheema recounted his ordeal to the students and faculty that filled half of Newhouse's Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium.

“Staying silent was not an option for me,” he said, even after his abductors threatened to come back for him and severely torture him again if they saw it in the media.

Since 2007, Cheema has been reporting for The News International, the largest English-language Pakistani newspaper based in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. His articles are also published in Urdu, a native language of Pakistan.

In the months leading up to his abduction, Cheema wrote a series of stories critical of the government, intelligence agencies and the Pakistani army. He said he figured his journalism provoked the incident. And it wasn’t the first time.

He was intentionally hit by a car twice in 2004, which injured his leg and left him in bed for six months. Cheema said he believes the perpetrators are also responsible for the more recent abduction. Though not yet confirmed officially, they were probably associated with Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), he said.

Cheema now has a friend accompany him to and from his office. His outdoor activities are limited. Jogging once at an empty gym, he realized the situation would be perfect for an abduction, because there would be no witnesses. Despite all this, Cheema said he’d never reconsider being a journalist.

“The cause I am fighting for is more important than my life,” he said about communicating the truth to the Pakistani people who rely on and respect his reporting.

Two SU students from Pakistan came to the awards to see the revered figure from their home country in person.

“It’s people like him who are going to make a difference for the Pakistani people,” said Imran Khalid, a doctoral student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, who is from outside of Islamabad.

Cheema has also inspired another student to pursue journalism.

“He’s a hero of sorts in Pakistan, so seeing him in person is really amazing,” said Maliha Aqueel, a master’s student in the broadcast and digital journalism program at Newhouse. She said she hopes to eventually cover Pakistan as a freelance reporter.

Cheema, 34, has also gained experience in the United States. He spent six months at The New York Times in 2008 as part of the Daniel Pearl Fellowship program.

For the Tully award he received, Cheema was one of 11 nominees, including ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff.

The Tully Center grew out of a donation from Newhouse alumna Joan Tully, who died of brain cancer in 2005. She wanted to fund a center that would recognize the importance of free speech and provide journalists with resources to pursue that freedom without interference.

Cheema accepted the award after a 24-hour flight from Islamabad to Syracuse. He made it clear he wouldn’t let the fear of danger to his life subdue his free speech. In fact, now that he’s spoken up, he said he has gained more credibility, more sources and more stories.

Cheema said, “I do stories that people are afraid of doing.”

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