Umar Cheema encourages journalists to fight for a cause

Thursday, April 21, 2011 | 9:36 p.m. CDT; updated 10:31 a.m. CDT, Friday, April 22, 2011
Umar Cheema, a Pakistani investigative reporter, speaks in an interview Thursday at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Cheema endured a brutal abduction and torture in September after writing several articles critical of the Pakistani government and army.

COLUMBIA — When he was growing up in Pakistan, Umar Cheema had ambitions of landing a prestigious government job. While he was waiting for that opportunity, he found work at a newspaper and never looked back. 

“I realized I enjoyed it, and it was what I wanted to do,” he said.

Cheema has spent 10 years reporting in Pakistan about corruption, security and military affairs, the last three at The News. His work often has resulted in stories that held accountable the government he once wanted to serve.

During his career, Cheema, 34, has faced numerous threats and two attacks on his life. 

“Despite the risk, I will continue,” he said during an interview Thursday before an evening speech at the MU School of Journalism. “I am trying to secure the future for the next generation.”

In 2004, Cheema was hit by a car and suffered a compound fracture to his left leg that left him bedridden for six months. He also described how he was abducted on his way home last September, then stripped, blindfolded, handcuffed, beaten, dumped and told to remain silent.

He believes both attacks were in response to his journalism.

Cheema has made it a point to share his story in news columns, a blog and other forums. He has attracted worldwide attention, including an editorial in The New York Times condemning the September attack that left him bruised and battered. Cheema worked at the Times in 2008 as a Daniel Pearl Fellow.

“I spoke because I wanted to send a message to my abductors that I cannot be intimidated,” he said. “I am fighting for my country.”

Earlier this month, Cheema was presented with the Tully Center Free Speech Award at Syracuse University in New York. The award honors journalists who show courage in the face of threats against free speech.

“It is an honor to get the award,” he said. “It helps me to keep fighting and know I am not alone.”

Randy Smith, who teaches business journalism at MU, met Cheema in 2008. He described Cheema as “fearless.”

“His work is an inspiration to his people and society,” Smith said. 

During a talk Thursday evening at the Reynolds Journalism Institute that drew more than 100 people,Cheema shared his experiences and encouraged journalism students to stand for a cause.

MU graduate student Amir Yehia, from Iraq, said he was proud for what Cheema has done and had survived.

"I am inspired," he said.

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