Knight Journalism Award Helps Put "Hostile Elements" on Notice
Pakistani journalist Umar Cheema, winner of the 2013 Knight International Journalism Award, credits the award with sending a message to “hostile elements” that violence against journalists “will not go unnoticed.”
A special investigative correspondent for Pakistan’s largest English-language daily, The News, Cheema received the Knight Award for producing high-impact stories in the face of violent attacks. He was assaulted twice for publishing investigative reports but continued to churn out a steady stream of hard-hitting stories. He also founded the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan.
Cheema will participate in the ICFJ May Board Dinner event, where the 2015 Knight International Journalism Award Winners will be announced.
In an interview with ICFJ, Cheema talks about his experience as an award winner and provides advice to this year’s awardees.
What was it like to receive the Knight Award at ICFJ’s Awards Dinner in 2013?
It was a humbling moment. A great acknowledgement indeed for quality and courageous reporting. I felt excited and anxious. Excited because of the honor bestowed on me and anxious for the burden of expectations it carried along with it. It was a call for the continuous struggle to achieve and preserve excellence.
Has winning the Knight Award helped you to be safer?
It has. The award brings with it a message for hostile elements ... That they are under a global spotlight and any negative move will not go unnoticed.
What lessons has winning the Knight Award taught you?
That good work never goes unnoticed. That you are being watched hundreds of miles away and there are people who can acknowledge your contribution in making the world a better place.
What advice would you give to the next Knight Award winners?
Feel honored and privileged. You are among the chosen few from around the world. Remember that honor brings with it expectations. The great thing about expectations is they motivate you into becoming a role model and a distinguished individual. Life is short. You can do anything but not everything. Make sure you do something great.
What story are you the most proud of?
The series unmasking MPs’ tax evasion is the most impactful work I have ever done. It triggered a public debate that was followed by a policy change: the government decided to make tax data public after my second report in December 2013. (The first report was released in December 2012.) Pakistan has become the fourth country in the world – after Norway, Sweden and Finland – where tax data is public. Now two tax directories are published every year. One is about the taxes of lawmakers; another carries the names of companies and individuals who filed tax returns and the amount of taxes they paid.
You also created the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan. Why?
The idea of setting up the center was driven by the urge to improve the quality of journalism and facilitate journalists who have a passion but lack guidance and resources ... The center will train journalists, mentor the beginners, offer resources to journalists doing investigative work. It will make a difference.
You were kidnapped for publishing your investigative reports. What happened on the day you were attacked?
I was driving back home late at night when I was intercepted by two vehicles. Men wearing police uniforms forced me out of the car, putting me into a black [Toyota] Prado. I was handcuffed and blindfolded. My wallet, cell phone and glasses were taken off. They drove to an unknown place, stripped me naked and started beating me. My head and eyebrows were shaved. I was later dumped some 100 miles away from Islamabad with a warning ‘never to speak up.’ I refused to surrender, came back and went public about the brutality I experienced.
You were the victim of another attack years earlier.
Yes, this incident occurred on Dec. 4, 2004, when a car ran over me twice and sped away. I received compound fractures in my left leg and remained bed-ridden for six months. Anonymous calls followed the incident warning me to ‘behave.’
Many people would have stayed quiet after being attacked. What keeps you going?
The incidents strengthened my belief in journalism and the work I do. It gave me a reason to continue in this profession. Many people are killed every day without having ever spoken or written a controversial word. Why not go down doing some noble work?
How has journalism in Pakistan changed?
Pakistani media is resilient. It has fought a long way. However, it lacks professionalism. Things are improving gradually as more and more journalists are exposed to international journalism practices. The worrying aspect these days is that censorship is staging a comeback. These are difficult times to be a journalist.
Why did you become a journalist?
I grew up aspiring to become either a politician or a bureaucrat but ended up as a journalist ... I thought I would prepare myself for the civil service exam while doing a journalistic job to meet my expenses. Sooner rather than later, I felt as if I were born to become a journalist. I wanted to help people, become their voice, highlight their sufferings and struggle for their rights. And journalism is all about this. I can do this as a journalist far better than as a bureaucrat or a politician, who are trained to preserve the status quo. It’s a great thing to be a journalist. It empowers you to struggle for the betterment of society.
In your view, what is the power of journalism?
There is nothing more powerful than information....No society can change itself in ignorance. Journalism is a catalyst of change. Know yourself and do your duty. People have a right to know and a journalist is duty-bound to let them know.
Below, watch the video that was shown at ICFJ's Awards Dinner in 2013 to honor Cheema, who was given the Knight International Journalism Award.