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Silent no more: Pakistani journalist speaks out

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 2, 2011 - Freedom of press -- the ability to investigate and to ask critical questions are basic freedoms in America, protected under the First Amendment. Pakistani journalistUmar Cheema salutes this freedom because he has felt its absence.

Sept. 4, 2010, was the day Cheema's "freedom was robbed" when he was abducted, beaten and tortured for seven hours in his native Pakistan. Cheema, an award-winning investigative reporter for a major Pakistani newspaper, The News, wrote articles questioning the conduct and performance of the Army and the intelligence services and reporting accusations of corruption by high Pakistani officials, including President Asif Ali Zardari. He believes that his abductors were associated with the spy agency as they threatened him and told him to stop writing his articles and to remain silent.

"Silence has never been an option; if I am a journalist, I cannot stay silent," Cheema said. "I didn't do anything wrong. I did my duty and I told the stories that needed to be told."

Cheema was invited to lead a forum, "Dare to Speak," hosted by the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America at the St. Louis Convention Center on Friday. Many Pakistanis were in attendance as the 34th annual APPNA conference crowded the convention center.

Journalism is a dangerous profession in Pakistan: 32 journalists have died since 1992. In 2010, with eight deaths, Pakistan was the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. In 2011, the death toll continues to rise with five journalists killed in just six months.

"This is not a good record. Many Pakistanis are surprised to find their country has this reputation. This is something that needs to be brought to their attention," said Bob Dietz, veteran journalist and Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Cheema never realized how dangerous Pakistan was for journalists, as he never felt in danger before his incident. At the forum, Cheema recalled the incident in more detail. As he drove home after meeting a friend at a local coffee shop in Islamabad, two cars cornered Cheema. Two men dressed as police officers approached him and said that he was being pulled over because he sideswiped a man a few blocks back. Cheema denied these claims, but before he could realize it, he was shoved into a van, handcuffed and a bag was placed over his head.

His abductors took him to an unknown location and for roughly 25 minutes, he was beaten with a leather strip and wooden board on his shoulder and hip. Cheema had his head and eyebrows shaved and he was told to remain silent about the incident.

"I realized this was the most critical time in my life, I kept thinking about my family and my son," Cheema said. "They were treating me like I was an al-Qaida agent."

Audience member Jaime Mowers, a reporter for the Webster-Kirkwood Times, the South County Times and the West End Word, was "inspired" by Cheema's courage to speak up. Mowers said she wants to make it a personal commitment to help Pakistani journalists and she is asking fellow American journalists to do the same.

"I was really amazed, this really opened my eyes to what journalists in Pakistan are facing. We American journalists, we never feel threatened in our daily lives, we sit pretty comfortable in the desks that we have and I think that we often forget it isn't like that everywhere," Mowers said. "We need to fight for people like Umar who do not enjoy the same kind of privilege that we do."

During the question and answer session, Mowers asked the panelists, Cheema, Dietz and Anwar Iqbal, a reporter for the Dawn News, a publication in Pakistan, how American journalists could help.

"We need to unite and we need to resist to protect our human rights," Iqbal said. "Journalists must speak up."

Many attacks on journalists in Pakistan go unpunished: Only one case has been brought to trial, according to Pakistani records. That trial was the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl nearly 10 years ago. The Pearl family provided a statement to open the forum that echoed Iqbal's sentiments.

"The protection that journalists once enjoyed has been severely eroded and today journalists are no longer regarded as neutral emissaries for the quest of knowledge, but as agents of hidden agendas and targets of exploitation, extortion and even worse," the Pearl family said in the statement. "Friends, a journalist is certainly not one newspaper or one country, but the society at large and its need to be informed truthfully and objectivity, may the spirit of Daniel strengthen your hands."

Cheema chose to defy his abductors and to speak out. Nowadays, he only leaves his house for business and is always home before sunset. Despite these precautions, Cheema is strengthened by his right to the freedom of speech.

"Nothing I did was wrong and I have to fight it. If I was to be killed, I would have been killed fighting for a noble cause," Cheema said.

Fact Box

* Pakistan was the deadliest country for journalists in 2010 with eight deaths.

* Five journalists have died midway through 2011.

* 32 journalists have been killed since 1992 in Pakistan.

* Only one case has been taken to trial (Daniel Pearl case in 2002).

Source: Committee to Protect Journalists

Jonathan Ernst, a student at Saint Louis University, is a summer intern at the Beacon.