Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

Pakistan's investigative pioneer

Reporter Umar Cheema endures trials and terror as he tames Pakistan’s journalistic wild west, one article at a time.

Investigative journalism in Pakistan was virtually non-existent in when Missouri Honor Medalist Umar Cheema began his career there in 2001, said Amy McCombs, the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press studies at the University of Missouri. Cheema has since changed that.

“It’s a noble job for journalists to give voice to the voiceless,” Cheema said at his Oct. 15 master class at the University of Missouri.

Cheema, an investigative reporter for the Pakistani newspaper The News, reports on politics, national security and corruption in Pakistan. He said his interest in addressing these serious issues began at a young age.

“My father asked me the question, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ I said I would like to be a politician or government servant,” Cheema said.

During his master class, Cheema spoke of the state of Pakistan’s media and how it is creating change among citizens. He said smartphones have especially created a revolution, with 1-2 million Pakistanis owning smartphones. And according to Cheema, these smartphone users exchange messages more than users in any other country.

But while there may be progress in media usage, Cheema said Pakistan is experiencing its worst economic crisis. With many unemployed, Pakistanis are frustrated.

“Everybody is just thinking about today. How is he going to survive today?,” Cheema said.

Despite economic woes, Cheema does think Pakistan is changing for the better and the “high and mighty” can be held accountable through the work of investigative reporters.

“We are witnessing history in the making in Pakistan,” Cheema said. “I still have hope in my country. I want to witness that history, and I want to be part of that change in Pakistan.”

For Cheema, influencing change has not come without a price. In 2010, he was abducted and beaten by unknown assailants who accused him of discrediting Pakistan’s government. Although shaken by the experience, he was determined that it would not stop him from doing further reports — if anything, his motivation was intensified.

“It has made me a different man,” Cheema said. “By Pakistani standard, I am not a common man. People treat me different.”

Following the attack, Cheema wanted his abductors to know he could not be intimidated. He continued to write articles, shed light on Pakistan’s government and spoke out about his experience.

“This will have a lesson; it was up to me what kind of lesson,” Cheema said.

Cheema noted, however, in order for greater change to occur, the country still needs more investigative reporters. Many Pakistan reporters are not trained for investigative reporting and, therefore, lack the necessary skills.

And while the need for investigation is great, Cheema does not deny it is still quite dangerous. In a recent report, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Pakistani journalists must be courageous. In 2010 and 2011 more journalists were killed in the country than anywhere else, and many of those killings involved journalists who were previously warned to stay silent.

Cheema hopes to create opportunities, such as a center for investigative reporting, to educate Pakistani journalists and protect them. However, he said for real improvement to occur, Pakistan needs to make major changes to its political system. Although his work may not directly change Pakistan’s government, Cheema believes it’s a way to illuminate issues that would otherwise go unreported.

By Gina Cook.

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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