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The significance of Umar Cheema's abduction

With all the problems in Pakistan--the flooding in the country that might be the worst ever; the increasingly devastating sectarian and separatist violence that has taken the lives of hundreds of Pakistanis and at least four journalists--focusing on what happened to Umar Cheema, a reporter for The News, might seem almost a sidebar story. But it's not. It's something much larger.

Cheema was abducted, beaten, and humiliated over the weekend in Islamabad (see our alert from Wednesday.)

The group editor for The News (the largest English-language paper in Pakistan, published by the Jang Group of Newspapers), Shaheen Sehbai, who is traveling in the U.S., was the first to contact me about the abduction. I wasn't able to get through to Umar until Wednesday evening, after we had posted our alert. His first message was typical of him: "Hope you're doing OK. I'm fine and in high spirits."

When I asked who had done this to him, his answer was measured: "The men were in police uniforms but they weren't policemen, I suppose. I did a number of stories that were highly critical of the army, the federal government, including President Asif Ali Zardari. I can't precisely say who could be behind this attack but I believe that army-controlled intelligence agencies and civilian agencies should explain their position."

In The News' account of the abduction, Umar said his kidnappers had asked him if he was trying to discredit the government with his reporting and bring about another military government--historically the default solution for tottering Pakistan presidencies. That still begs the question of who took him, but if you want to see whose list of enemies list Umar might be on and why he's not sure who would so terribly abuse him, The News posted his more recent stories with the terrific headline "What Cheema reported and paid for through his nose."

Even though we reported that Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani called Cheema to assure him the attack would be thoroughly investigated, there is good reason to doubt that it will be. At least in terms of murders, there has been no investigation with subsequent prosecution of anyone who has killed a journalist in Pakistan beyond that of the case of the American Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal reporter who was abducted in January 2002 and killed about a month later.

In our alert on Umar's ordeal, I quoted the English-language daily Dawn's widely reprinted editorial, which said: "No half-hearted police measures or words of consolation from the highest offices in the land will suffice in the aftermath of the brutal treatment meted out to journalist Umar Cheema of The News. This paper's stand is clear: the government and its intelligence agencies will be considered guilty until they can prove their innocence."

It's worth reposting that. Arguably, President Asif Ali Zardari's government hasn't been as heavy-handed as the Musharraf government that came before him, but Zardari's record is hardly admirable.

The targeted, politically motivated attack on Umar is precisely the sort of event that, even amid the rest of Pakistan's woes, serves as a turning point in closing the space in which journalists operate.  Dawn's editorial got it dead right when it said: "His torture was a message to not just an individual but the entire journalistic community in Pakistan that a certain type of criticism will no longer be tolerated. The government must probe this incident with honesty of purpose, which is a bit of an ask, and come clean with its findings. Journalists have been killed in Pakistan before. This time though a media person was abducted, subjected to physical pain and then released to send a message to writers at large." 

That's the significance of Umar Cheema's abduction--it was a message sent to all journalists in Pakistan, and it may not have come from the Taliban, or al-Qaeda, or any one of the scores of groups engaged in combat with the legitimate authorities across the country. As Dawn says, it is "a bit of an ask" to expect an honest investigation given Pakistan's past record in incidents like these. But it's still not too much to ask. 

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Comments

When Umar Cheema writes, in a commentary titled 'Why my attackers failed but gave me strength', that the situation in his country calls for internal accountability and restructuring the society, he echoes almost all the people of the world. But how many of us, outside Pakistan, are living in a 'default solution' the country has been experiencing most of the time of its existence on world map as a sovereign nation? Despite its immense capabilities, 'vested interests and pro-status quo forces' are out there to pull it down further when, I quote from Cheema again, 'The country’s neighbours China and India, are emerging as superpowers'. Whatever hype are there to fight terrorism in and outside Pakistan, the country needs to look at the worms eating up it from inside to stand straight first. As a journalist, I find encouragement when Cheema says, 'We cannot be intimidated' or 'I’m ready to pay any price for speaking up'. But the situation in Pakistan calls for a bolder role by world journalists’ community to force the government to stop persecution of journalists. We see a stark contrast in reality and statement when the Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, says he strongly believes in freedom of expression. I have no intention to say he has any role in the attempts to silence criticism against government. I also believe ‘coming clean’ would be the best policy for the government. Again, there is no scope to underplay the vehemence of the attack in terms of injury. The attackers are trying to shake the journalists to the core and we can't let that happen.

Being a simple consumer of news media products rather than journalism practioner, I believe and support with the core of my heart to the idea of "freedom of expression", therefore, condemn whole-heatedly to the abduction and humiliation of Umer Cheema English-media journalist - topic of this article.

However, in my opinion just condemning to the politically-motivated mistreatment of journalists would not be enough to support the free media,if we really want to bring a true development of professional media we also have to condemn the agenda-motivated role-playing by journalists in Pakistan. Particularly, when some journalists just beleive in "freedom of expression",however, sorry to say,they forget due to reasons unknown believing in the other count that is "following the objectivity", which makes complete to the faith of professional and responsible journalism.

This is what seemed me to an extent while becoming a critical of government or President Asif Ali Zardari by some anchor-persons of Urdu media current affair programmes. Their being biased can be judged even from their tone when they took the name of President Asif Ali Zardai while discussions.

Media is there because audience are there, so, we should not at all forget that audience are the end judges of media content and its producers. Last but not least media researchers have discovered that "journalists do not work in vacuum. They are also social actors who commit mistakes and misconducsts".

Regards,

Bashir Memon
Department of media and communication
University of Leicester, UK

The press in Pakistan is faced with even more problems. the threats come from different corners. The society does not digest truth, the government can not face , true stories which brig to light its failures and the military can not afford to see people pointing fingures at its extra constitutional role at times ,
Morever the extermist elements within the society are another threat ,,, i would like to say that we have to strengthen ourselves on many fronts . we have to be
more organized and our connection with international media should be even more stronger ,,, that can help in putting pressure on state elements in ensuring freedom of press in Pakistan

I met Mr. Umer Cheema here in UK during his visiti with a journalist's delegation in 2006 and found him a nice person. He is a compitent and responcible reporter and what happened with him is realy realy very sad and condemnable.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan the journalist community have been always under the line of fire.
My own elder brother an Islamabad based Senior Journalist Malik Mohammad Ismail Khan Resident Editor of an independent national news agency "Pakistan Press International" (PPI) had been brutally murdered on the night of 31st October 2006 and up untill now the murderers are still at large.
CPJ and Bob Dietz have also done their efforts in order to find the murderers but Islamabad Police and other investigative departments did not their work properly and nothing has come from their investigation, so we are still waiting for justice.
I also appeal to the journalist community and especialy to CPJ that they have to struggle in order to find the actual perpretators of all these henious crimes against the journalists in Pakistan.